Publications
The Psychopaths Among Us: A Three-Act Essay Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

ben-thomas-1(AWP Talk, Boston, March 2013; First Published TriQuarterly May 31, 2013)

Time: Late August
Place: Hudson Valley Writers’ Center
Event: A weeklong workshop in “writing the memoir”
Players: Seven writers and me, the teacher

     Act I

A woman writer in her sixties is the last of seven students to share her work. Her title: “The Psychopaths Among Us: A Case Study.”

I present her writing here in the style she adopted, a very clipped textbook shorthand, articles dropped from nouns, and minimal development. I can’t imitate her reading voice, but its tone, hectoring and shrill, is somewhere between Donald Trump and The Nanny’s Fran Drescher.

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Writing While Ill: Pathography, Then & Now Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

VirginiaWoolf(Shenandoah March 1, 2013)

1 /

Virginia Woolf begins her 1926 essay, “On Being Ill,” with a doozy of a sentence:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his ‘Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth’ with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

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One Way It Happens Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

decnight 11(Brevity #41 January 12, 2013)

That first heart attack, which begins while I’m teaching a writing class, has the virginal peculiarity of my (a) not knowing what a heart attack is since I’ve never had one, which is true; (b) running to the bathroom to crap whatever it is out of my system, which doesn’t work; (c) believing prior to, but more important, during the attack, that were I ever to have one as my father and brother had I would fall to and writhe on the ground in pain, pound my chest with clenched fist, stare up at a circle of people and their tortured regard, a man with a fedora and a woman with an umbrella, whispering, “What’s wrong with him?” until someone calls an ambulance and I am saved, a fate I’ve managed to escape just now; (d) excusing myself to a dozen stunned students, driving to a hospital three minutes away, dreading the attack would worsen en route, my heart ballooning and popping, my chest exploding, which the longer it’s forestalled makes me certain it will occur; (e) feeling the imprisoning sweat on my clothes, its heat like a lawn-mower engine, which the night air does not cool; (f) arriving/parking/rushing-in/proclaiming to the intake nurse, “I’m having a heart attack,” and her saying, in the slackest of voices, “OK, but let’s get some information first,” to which I want to scream, “Call a doctor!” but I’m too frightened to so I comply; (g) stripping down, lying on a bed in an emergency bay, getting hooked up to the ECG, hearing the chart-reading technician say, “Mr. Larson, you’re right—you’re having a heart attack,” which is satisfying, even calming, because it confirms the menacing torrent of these last ten/twenty minutes; and finally (h) being half and wholly aware, both then and now, that (1) I’ve not been hit by a car; (2) I’m not lying in the street, kicking the invisible bike pedals; (3) I’m relieved, almost giddily, to be alive and laid low, like a badly wounded soldier who gets a flight home to recover or die; (4) I’m surprised this heart attack is a longer and not a shorter event, which means I have time to stomach its yaw and gauge the pain, be lifted onto the altar of having a heart attack and not yet having had a heart attack, which is short-lived once they stabilize me with the blood thinner and the clot buster; (5) I’m being wheeled down the loud, slick hallways on a gurney to the catheterization lab; (6) I’m the back-flat center of attention, fluorescent lights above me clicking by like film frames, shocked survivor, Ismael adrift in Queequeg’s coffin; and (7) I’m thinking, as I’m submerged for the angioplasty, a semi-conscious drugged state that flat-lines the fear, of my father and brother who years before died minutes after their angina began—one on a hotel bed in St. Louis, the other on his living room floor in Ashland, Wisconsin, his two-year-old daughter crying in a crib close by—long before any ambulance arrived, before any CPR or Coumadin or coughing jag or vomiting jolt might have revived them, my father and my brother, so much alike as to be at each other’s throats all during my childhood, whose lives were, not unsurprisingly, lopped off at the ankles by heart disease and who in their final throes would not have known the moment they were dying as the moment they were dying, which, praise be, neither do I for now.

 
After Many a Summer Still Writing My Parents Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

size1(Michael Steinberg's Blog November 28, 2012)

When I began life-writing in earnest, in the early 1990s, I turned to my dead father—my first, natural subject. Why first? Why natural? In a word, access. Our intimacy was special, almost motherly on his part; better yet, it was still on my skin. I listed a dozen moments I had with him as a boy in which he transferred some male potency, sorrow stirred with wisdom, to me. I wrote many of these episodes quickly, discovering that this skin-activated memory, attuned more to a felt frequency than any consequential event, had kept our relationship wired and alive.

Those several episodes, time-stopping, lingered like a burn—his scratchy-glancing kiss goodnight; his smell of Aqua Velva, soap, and coffee; his telling me I was, of his three sons, his favorite, though my older and younger brothers, reading my work or hearing me talk much later, disagree. Teaching memoir, how often I have demonstrated memory’s rash—stroking my arm and saying, "I can still feel him/his touch on my body. He’s right here."

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The Shifting Self Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

oxam_78(Oxford American Issue 78: August, 2012)

Seven months before September 11, Donald Morrill and his wife, Lisa, endured an invasion and robbery in their Tampa, Florida, residence. Their assailant held them naked for twenty minutes during which they were threatened, humiliated, and locked in the bathroom. Their car was stolen, and the culprit was never caught.

In a ninety-nine-page book, The Untouched Minutes, which won the 2004 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, Morrill mingles the story of the assault with other violent incidents of that and the following two years: the September 11 attacks, the anthrax scare and murders, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the stabbing deaths of two Dartmouth professors, Half and Susanne Zantop. In the same week that Don and Lisa were terrorized, the Zantops were killed so that two teenage bosy could afford a trip to Australia. Their murder runs as a counter-theme throughout Morrill's book, suggesting a horror that might have been, which he and his wife escaped.

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Music, Memory, and Prose: On Joan Didion's Memoirs Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

joan-didion(Puerto del Sol Volume 47, No. 1: Summer, 2012)

1)

With the 2003 publication of Where I Was From, Joan Didion began what may be the final phase of her fifty-year-plus writing career—the first of three memoirs, a loose trilogy centering on geographical exile and personal loss that reveal a master composer of prose. Close behind Where I Was From came The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005. Then, at the end of 2011, Blue Nights. This decade-long memoir period caps a Leonard-Bernstein-like run with Didion scoring several hits among a host of genre, each of which overlaps. There's the novel phase: five books, published between 1963 and 1996, among them Play It As It Lays. There's the nonfiction phase: six books, several of which are essay collections, beginning in 1968 with Slouching Toward Bethlehem and ending with Political Fictions in 2001.

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The Multihyphenated Author Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

02 invisible-city1988twelvetress-press topcarousselportrait(Hippocampus Magazine May 2012)

Scrolling through Yahoo’s online finance page, I stumble on this purple headline: “A U.S. Debt Crisis Is On Its Way.” The article is by the British economist and Harvard professor, Niall Ferguson. I have not read his books but have savored his analysis in the New York Review of Books and in a few podcasts. (In early 2011, Ferguson was picked by Tina Brown for a weekly column in the new Newsweek.) He’s a smart guy. His view, like that of Paul Krugman, I trust, though I also admire the gloom of this article’s title—I’ve been looking for such negativity of late to help me rationalize why I’m trying to get out of the stock market: post-bailout, mid-recession, pre-crisis, wherever-we-are.

I click on the link and up pops three short paragraphs, nestled in the middle of a page surrounded by marauding ads, typographically foxy: “Buffet’s Latest Pick.” “Buzz.” “Our Premium Membership.” To the left of the graphs and the graphics is a headshot of Ferguson, which suggests a video, perhaps of the same material, repackaged into a live or recorded interview.

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