Jen Hirt’s essay “Students of the Route” was a finalist in Terrain.org’s 4th Annual Nonfiction Contest, judged by Kathryn Miles, and is featured in Issue 34: Elemental. Here, Jen lists her reading recommendations, suggesting a few works that have helped shape her writing.
“Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them.”
In this 1973 novel, the fugitive Lester Ballard commits murder and necrophilia after his dead daddy’s farm in East Tennessee is auctioned off and Ballard is wrongly accused of rape. In classic McCarthy style, the grotesque is gritted down with words so baroque that one has to pause within the first pages to consider swales, serried, fiddlebacked, firedog, muntins, swains, and popskull. And that’s why I (an essayist with no care for necrophilia except to point out that it’s bad and illegal) read and reread this book—for every ramshackle backwoods phrase made sublime.
Why is McCarthy such an influence for writers, when many readers cannot get beyond the violence in his novels? Harold Bloom has admitted having to put down more than once another McCarthy novel, Blood Meridian, and I did too—because it was so god-awful accurate. And accuracy is what an essayist can learn from McCarthy, who must be one hell of a listener, because he can capture like a poet the cadence of a sheriff’s threat, the pleading of the teen girl in the car, even the baying of hounds who chase prey through Lester’s cabin one night. And McCarthy rearranges phrases so he doesn’t need many commas. How smart is that? It’s like he’s seen and felt and said exactly what’s happening in his novels, and that’s why essayists should study his writing—because we’re just trying to capture what we’ve seen and felt and said.
“The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking.”
When students ask about my writing process, I tell them I walk out there in the world, down city streets and across country fields. I obey park trails and street signs, but I also trespass. I walk at night or near dawn, in ice storms and heat waves, among strangers, among friends, among dogs. Everything happens on a walk. Rebecca Solnit knows this too.
I recommend Wanderlust for writers of any genre because Solnit lays out a thorough argument for how walking and creativity are linked. Solnit is a tremendous researcher; take note of the 25 pages of endnotes documenting everyone from philosopher Walter Benjamin to poet Gary Snyder to novelist Jane Austen. Chapter topics include what happens to your brain on a walk, the religious underpinnings of a pilgrimage, why men climb mountains and why women walk the streets at night. Every paragraph is fascinating, and I’m not exaggerating. This is one of those books I read with a pencil in hand, making margin notes and writing favorite lines in my own notebook. Solnit’s ability to thread research with storytelling, as well as humor with provocative insight, makes her one of the best nonfiction writers we have.
“The project of his last months was to get rid of all that he had accumulated.”
There is a giant blurry spoon on the hardcover editor of this 2012 winner of the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction. It alludes to the commemorative spoons Aldrich received from her friend, Joel, while he was secretly and studiously giving away possessions in preparation for his suicide on November 20, 1995. She received the spoons a few days before Joel’s death. She confesses that she does not know what to do with them.
In this memoir that seems to both redefine and embrace traditional sorrow, Aldrich alphabetizes more than 100 topics, objects, and insights related in some way to Joel and his suicide. It is her attempt to make an organized narrative (and a “companion book,” in the practical sense of the phrase, the way there might be a companion guide to all of Shakespeare’s plays). But it is also her way to resist the controlling finality of Joel’s chaotic narrative and his shedding of items, because she immortalizes them in the pages of the book, sometimes with photos. There is a scan of a receipt, a photo of a spoon handle, another photo of a much-discussed egg coddler once stuffed with cash. Some entries are one line long, no more than famous quotes left in solitude on white pages. Other entries are long, wrenching, mournful. Aldrich addresses regret (on not doing enough, on not seeing the telltale signs), confusion, anger, and yes, even a little acceptance that seems to come mostly through a deep analysis of Joel’s long history of writing letters to Aldrich and her husband. This is no self-help “moving beyond suicide” kind of book.
Aldrich is the former editor of Fourth Genre, the influential nonfiction literary journal out of Michigan State University, and she’s recently had an essay in the Best American series. I mention this because she is firmly rooted in the traditions of creative nonfiction, so she does not experiment with form just to be gratuitous or spectacular—there’s a point to her alphabetized companion book’s form. It’s well worth a careful read.