by Elizabeth Hellstern
I volunteered for the NonfictionNOW conference held at NAU at the end of October, in Flagstaff AZ. It was amazing. I attended four panel sessions and two keynote speaker sets per day, browsed the book fair, drank cocktails at a couple parties, read my own work (in Halloween pink hair) and found many interesting people to talk to. Many of my conversations have led to online sharing of writing and ideas. From now on, I am compelled to read work by people I met at this conference, because it provides context for understanding, good material for conversation with my new friends, and ultimately because there are so many good things out there to read that we have to have some way of choosing.
To that end, to I have searched and found four essays from some of the cool people I talked to. Believe me, there were many others, but for brevity’s sake, I will keep it to four. I won’t tell you all about each piece, but rather, I’d like to pull out some of my favorite lines—lines that are so well-written that they stand apart as objects, as individual marbles I’ve been rolling around my mouth, saying them over and over and savoring the way they feel. I love the places they refer to, the people they mention and the ideas they embody.
Barrie Jean Borich is from Chicago, and like every blond woman from that town with sass and a curvy figure, she reminds me of my Aunt Claire. I was really excited to find her essay “Of Wearing My Red Dress” (in the anthology After Montaigne) so I could“talk” about fashion with someone who had similar style panache to Claire. In her favorite red dress, Borich shows off her great cleavage and gets more attention than usual, then examines the situation, saying “I know the woman they see in this dress is made of a design, a bra, a posture, a stance, a mood, an attitude, and more story than body.” I get it! I also completely understand Borich when she says “the clothes were never just clothes, but also the story of clothes, the longing represented by clothes” but“…clothes have no stories without the body, and without the human lives that clothes both project and protect.” I have always felt that my clothes tell a story, and I try to be conscious of which story I’m telling.
I first met Tarn Wilson when I gave her a ride to town from the Flagstaff airport. I knew I liked her when I found out she was also a vegetarian. Wilson is the author of The Slow Farm, a memoir with “artifacts” that illustrate her unique life growing up off-grid, with alternative-lifestyle parents in Canada. I read The Slow Farm as soon as I got home from the conference. Then I found a fabulous essay Wilson wrote called “The History Of My Teeth” in Inertia Magazine. She says “Several of my high school students with impaired social skills have told me–not as an insult but as a cheerful observation–that I look like a rabbit.” This line is so brave and funny and endearing—in ways that aren’t sexy or sophisticated but purely humble. Wilson has gone for the humor at the expense of her ego; and now I am a loyal reader. Jericho Parms may very well be my writing doppelganger. We both love to write about touch, art and hot springs. Her essay “Lost Wax” in the American Literary Review braids together impressions of classic sculptures of Cupid, Eros and Aphrodite with memories of her ex-lover and her parents’ relationship. She writes “material textures enclose our living impulses.” I’ve started to get itchy thumbs, as I touch these impulses. Parms also says “these sculptures are myth and legend personified, allegories preserved”but although “created to uphold perfection, have inherited the imperfection of life itself.” The references to bronze and marble help me to feel the memories of lost love between my fingers.
There’s that famous question; which of your favorite writers would you want to have coffee with? These four authors are my top choices for coffee dates. If that doesn’t work out, then I’ll read their pieces with a hot cup of joe and be just as satisfied.