Prime Number Magazine
is a publication of 
Press 53
PO Box 30314,
Winston-Salem NC 27130
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Issue 79, October  2015
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Family, Edited
by Jocelyn Pihlaja

followed by q&a
With every turn of the tires, the highway delivered a tha-thump to my rear end, nestled as it was on the floor under the dashboard. I was curled into a ball at my mom’s feet, the backs of my legs sticking to the plastic mat that covered the industrial carpet. Folding limbs tight, I made myself small enough to fit into my special “fort” at the front of the car. When my legs became prickly, I unfolded and stretched, weaving myself through my mother.

Tha-thump.

Tired of the confines of the car as our family drove long hours across rectangular states, I found relief in this new space, this fort under the glove compartment. 

We’d drive all day. By dusk, I’d finished reading Nancy Drew, filled in pages of Mad Libs, exploded Pop Rocks on my tongue, listened to my brother and sister pick at each other. Invariably, the town where we’d stop for the night was still thirty miles off. Only then, as sunlight slanted sideways across the striations of The Badlands, over yet another Wall Drug sign, through the parking lot of Al’s Oasis, would I slither from the backseat, that jumble of kids’ discarded amusements, and ease my body into the space I carved around my mother. 

Tha-thump.

Even with the windows open and the sun fading, it was sweltering. We were bored, tired, ready for the motel. Maybe there would be a pool. Maybe we’d be there in time for Charlie’s Angels. Maybe my sister and I would watch from our shared bed, my brother from his roll-away. Over on their bed, my mom might stitch or write a letter while Dad went out to find us some dinner.

Before all that, though, we still had highway to cover. 

Tha-thump.

Just when it seemed the day would never end—that we’d never get to the motel—Mom would start talking, telling stories from her youth, pushing against the road-trip malaise. With her words, the stifling air of the car lightened. She recounted memories of wearing ugly tights to school, building a teepee in her 4th grade classroom, grabbing a handful of her brother’s golden curls so he didn’t drown. Occasionally, I would pipe up with questions, my voice rising from the floor. Eventually, she’d get to her college years and recollect a love story: the night she met a transfer student at a chili dinner held for newcomers. Intrigued by his reserve, she set her cap. In every telling, this story detailed her standing outside his dorm, staring at his window; making him cookies when he was sick; dating his roommate to inspire jealousy; wanting to get married the day after they graduated. Her reminiscence, unfurled while sitting next to my dad as he held the wheel, always included the words “He never liked me half as much as I liked him.” Despite that feeling, she successfully kept herself in his sights. While they didn’t get married the day after graduation, they did six years later. In relatively short order, they produced three children.

***

Decades later, during my second pregnancy, when I was in the midst of figuring out motherhood for myself, a new story emerged—on an afternoon when the only thing my growing belly and I wanted to do was accompany the pipping two-year-old out to the yard to hunt for four-leaf clovers. My daughter and I started out on hands and knees, crawling around the grass, noses touching blades, counting leaves, but before long, I was lying on my back, my girl gently climbing astride my torso, careful not to hurt the baby growing inside. Leaning her face over mine, she told me to close my eyes and feel the butterfly kisses of her eyelashes on my cheeks. Laughing, I toppled her sideways, and we lay next to each other, her legs resting on mine, the grass tickling our necks. As we gazed at slow-moving clouds, looking for rabbits and turtles in the puffs, my husband—a gentle, thoughtful man much like my father—slid open the patio door.

He called, “I’m making coffee. You want some?” Hearing a clatter on the front porch, he continued, “Sounds like the mail came. Probably just junk, though.” 

A couple minutes later, he wandered out to the yard, holding an envelope addressed to me.

Strangely, the letter was from my mom—who was due to arrive at our house within the hour. She and her sister had spent several days driving across the plains for a visit. She must have posted it just before she reversed down the driveway and pointed her car eastward.

Assuming it would contain the usual “I saw this snippet in the ‘Humor in Uniform’ section of Reader’s Digest and thought it would make you chuckle” contents, I ripped it open.

The first sentence read, “The topic of this letter may surprise, even shock, you.” By the second sentence, the alveoli in my lungs filled with sludge, and breathing became difficult. My mother was filing for divorce from my father, her husband of nearly 40 years.

An hour later, when our visitors parked in front of the house, I marched outside, grabbed my mother, and confessed, “I can’t pretend any niceties. I just got your letter, and I can’t stop crying.”

“Me, too.” Her voice was tremulous. We leaned into each other. She seemed small. When had she gotten small?

Eventually, we moved into the shelter of the house. The others retreated, managing to give us space in 966 square feet. We spent the next hours on the couch, passing the Kleenex box as we talked through the earth-shattering decision my mother had made to derail what everyone had thought was a very pretty life.

Her complaints were myriad: my father was not an expressive or demonstrative man; for 40 years, she had felt unloved; she had decided she’d rather live alone than with someone in such profound loneliness.

During our couch therapy, I rested the pads of my feet against my mom’s thighs. When my daughter ran in, wanting a book read, she clambered aboard a raft of mother and grandmother, suspended by our limbs as we flipped the pages. At book’s end, she slid down, shouting, “Daddy, now you read this to me!” 

Energetically, she tore away, and the conversation shifted from Good Night, Gorilla to my mother’s years of tormented journaling and unaddressed despair. Shifting uncomfortably on the couch, I rubbed her back—as she had mine the time my eardrum burst—and told her how sorry I was about it all. Absently, I realized I was doing well with the mothering. But the daughter? The daughter was lost.

***

Over the next few days, I managed a lively exterior, but bruises in my heart turned purple, then blue.

I felt bruised for my father, a quiet Finn defined by his reserve. I felt bruised by his lack of representation during The Airing of the Grievances. I felt bruised because his health was dismal, he was 67, and suddenly he was facing his final years alone. 

I felt bruised because I’d just discovered, absurdly after the fact, that the story of my youth was a myth. I hadn’t actually grown up in a reasonably happy, well-adjusted household but rather in a home of ache, unexpressed anger, and hardened misery. 

I felt bruised because the child growing inside of me would never bask in the heady collective adoration of his grandparents. He would never sit between them on a porch swing, encircled by their palpable affection. There would be no circles of love at all, just straight lines between far-removed individuals.

I felt bruised as I realized I had never truly known my mother. Not only had I been unaware of her unhappiness, I had never noticed that her steady burble of words hid an aversion to direct communication. But that letter she sent. The decades of unuttered upset. The fact that, several days into her visit at our house, she asked, eyes bright, “Do you notice anything different about me? I’ve been waiting to see if you’d say anything, but you haven’t.”

I had noticed nothing. All my life, wrapped around her feet in my cozy fort, I had noticed nothing.

She’d been waiting for me to recognize that she had gotten a nose job. The afternoon she was having divorce papers served on my unsuspecting father, she stayed at a girlfriend’s house. The next morning, at 6:00 a.m., Mom went to the surgeon and had the nose she’d always hated “fixed.” I wondered if that smaller nose had made it easier to see into a future without my father. 

***

After my mother’s visit, pieces continued to drop from the rickety scaffolding of their relationship. Our young family, and my burgeoning belly, visited them during their last tense weeks together. 

During that visit, as I helped sort the kitchen’s contents into boxes for two households, dividing the wooden spoons and cupboards of mugs with a “One for Mom, one for Dad, one to donate” count, I remembered, wryly, how worried I’d been when they’d bought that house. I’d been 24 and rattled by their decision: it meant they were selling my childhood home, and how could I ever feel like I had a place in the world without it? Naturally, the first time I visited them in their new place, all my fears dissipated. Home had never been the house; it had always been my parents. As I stood in the disarray of the kitchen, wrapping the lid of the cookie jar in newspaper, Thomas Wolfe washed through me with stark clarity: with my parents no longer together, I could never go home again. 

Then, in the jumble of deconstruction, it slipped out that my mom had been seeing someone else–not a physical affair yet, but an emotional one, driven by letters and phone calls exchanged behind my father’s back. 

My 67-year-old mother striking up a relationship with a former high school classmate was a twist worthy of a telenovela. Excited about her new relationship, she disclosed the details, once I caught whiff of there being “another.” However, she never told her soon-to-be-ex-husband of four decades or her other children. When, some weeks later, my intuitive dad asked me directly if there was someone else, I told him. His eyes were knowing as he confirmed, “Ah, yes. I watched them sparking with each other at their last class reunion.” It also fell to me to explain the new boyfriend to my brother and sister. After I relayed the news, Mom was relieved and asked for a rundown of their reactions. Teetering on a sharp wire strung between love and anger, I labored to find compassion: she was afraid. 

Before quitting that strained visit to Montana, we spent a morning driving around town with my dad, adding my name to bank and legal documents as his new co-signer. At the end of our errands, before we got into our well-loaded car to begin the trip across South Dakota, we stood in a parking lot, trying to find a close to this bewildering, foreign time. Before that day, I had seen my dad cry once, at his mother’s funeral. On the black asphalt, for the second time, I saw—felt—him cry, as we hugged, and I held him against my thumping belly.

With my arms wrapped around the curve of his back, he sobbed. So did I, and so did my husband, holding our daughter as she pointed at birds flitting across the big sky. Minutes passed, and my dad continued to weep. Finally, his shudders slowed. Unaware this was the last time I would see or touch him—I whispered into his ear, “You deserve better than this.”  

***

Five months after the divorce was finalized, my mother posted another letter to her children. This one began—bafflingly for the daughter who had put in myriad hours as support staff—“Though my previous messages to you about my decision to divorce were not acknowledged or replied to, none of you asked me any questions about why I did this, or expressed sympathy about my feeling ignored, unloved, and lonely for years, I have decided to write once more. It has seemed that you do not care for my feelings or me…” Her letter went on to assert that, although he’d never spoken of it or acted upon it, Dad had been gay. She’d had lunch with one of his high school classmates who prattled that they’d all known in their small town he was “not the marrying kind.” In several typed pages, my mom laid out the injustice of having been “invited into a marriage that was a hoax and a sham.” Fueled by a rage she couldn’t own, she transferred the injury of her life’s choices onto my dad, into disappointment with her children. 

She forgot to include the part where she stood outside his dorm, where she made him cookies, where she dated his roommate, where she knew when she was 19 that he never liked her half as much as she liked him. She forgot the part where she could have asked him if he was gay instead of creating that story for him.

Her letter arrived two weeks after I delivered a son by emergency C-section. My mom had been there, in the hospital room at first but eventually in the waiting area when she couldn’t handle my suffering. Later, when everyone gathered to meet the baby, she went to an organ concert at a local church. When my husband returned to work, leaving me with a two-year-old and an infant so big he exceeded the weight restrictions I was under, she announced it felt like time to head home. Raw, profoundly in need of help, I watched my mother carry her bags to the car. This time when I cried, I held a pillow to the incision on my stomach, cushioning the wound.

Her letter also arrived the day before my dad died, alone, his last breath exhaled into a clinical room, no love at his side. 

***

On the day of his memorial service, I sat in Urgent Care. During the long drive to Montana, the incision from my C-section, irritated by the seat belt, had become infected. Slightly feverish, pus oozing from the twelve-inch opening in my gut, traumatized from the agonizing process of getting that baby out of me, I tried to focus on the rest of the day, eventually arriving at a mantra of “Antibiotics, service, reception, bed.”

The memorial service teemed with people who respected my father. In the balcony of the church, former students brought a necessary liveliness. Below them were colleagues, fellow musicians, old friends, family. We three, his offspring, sat in the front row. During the service, as those who had known my dad’s beauty paid tribute to his effect on their lives, my voice reverberated inside my head. I wanted to feel better, to be steady on the black heels I’d borrowed from my mother, so that I could climb the three stairs to the chancel and testify to the grace of the man who raised me. I wanted to share the story of his growing up on a Montana ranch, of being the son who wasn’t mechanical, who was a disappointment to his Finnish father. I wanted to tell those assembled that the professor who’d trained their voices, the choral director who’d introduced them to chamber music, the bell ringer who’d stood next to them Sunday mornings, the man who once covered the Idaho panhandle explaining the nuances of Placido Domingo’s and José Carreras’s voices to his daughter, had spent his teenage years driving a tractor in circles while raising his face to the sky and singing to the clouds.

Instead, wobbly, I huddled in the pew, tucked between my siblings and my husband as he cradled our sleeping son to his shoulder. In the back of the church, from the remove of the “cry room,” my mom watched our three-year-old while listening to the service through a speaker. The grand-daughter desperately needed the bathroom but was scared to ask. The grand-mother, blowing her new nose, completely distraught, never noticed the little girl’s need.

My mom’s sadness that day wasn’t about her ex-husband’s death. Rather, she had been ripped to the core when, eager fingers riffling through the pages of the newspaper, looking for the obituary, she discovered she had never existed. While my dad’s obituary listed his children and grand-children as survivors, his wife of forty years was never mentioned.

I wrote the obituary.

At my side during the writing were my brother and sister. Embittered, my sister insisted there be no mention of our mother’s name in the accounting of Dad’s life. When I objected, my brother stepped in. Nodding his head at our sister, he cast the deciding vote: “She took care of Dad at the end. You and I weren’t there. She earned the right to decide this.” Acquiescing, I put my finger on the backspace key. 

The exclusion launched my mom into paroxysms of grief. After the service, we moved to the basement to restore ourselves with cheese and deli meat. While I was chatting with an old friend, my husband tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “I want to make sure you know this so that you’re not blind-sided: your mom is grabbing every person she can and crying to them about being left out of the obituary. Basically, she’s hijacking your dad’s memorial.”

It was fitting. The day was taken over by my mom’s story, only this time my dad wasn’t sitting next to her, silently holding the wheel.

Later that night, I sat on the closed lid of a toilet in the only quiet room I could find and talked with her on the phone. My breasts were heavy with milk, and my big baby was hungry, but first: Mom. She wanted to invite us kids—except my sister, who refused—to her apartment for dinner the next night. She wanted to talk to us. Feeling the prickles of milk letting down, I started to ask what time when, suddenly, a third voice joined us on the line. It was one of my mom’s best friends, and she was enraged. 

Breaking into our conversation, she screamed. “How dare you leave your mom out of the obituary? How dare you kids be so hateful after all she’s done for you? How can none of you have any feeling for her and all she’s been through? How can you be so awful? How dare you, especially—

Leveled by the vitriol, decimated by my mother’s silence, I shriveled. Her voice spiraled higher. The telephone was slippery with tears and mucous from my nose, and I slid to the fuzzy rug in front of the toilet. Croaking, I managed, “Mom, I can’t take this. Judy, you’re being inappropriate. This is not your issue. I’m hanging up now.” 

Ugly sobs bounced off the floor tiles. Stranded on an island of cheap rug, I gulped and gulped, one hand pressed against the inflamed incision that strained against dissolving stitches. Hearing me, my husband eased in and helped me stand. My milk wet both our shirts.

***

The next night, my brother and I took our families to Mom’s apartment, tiny rooms stuffed with antiques, knickknacks, and gilded mirrors—the backdrop to my childhood memories. Strangely, the tone was light, with her giving us a “tour” of the place, filling the air with the logistics of why she put the china closet along that wall and a report of selling the Victorian living room set. 

After admiring how neatly the claw-foot table fit in the corner, we sat down. A bowl of soup perched on my knee, I juggled sipping, tapping the baby’s back, and helping my daughter climb up and down as she and her cousin occupied themselves in the tight space. My brother and I explained why we had honored our sister’s decision about the obituary’s contents. My mom concentrated her argument on the historical ramifications for future genealogists. We lurched our way to détente. Then, very officially, Mom pulled out a yellow legal pad and announced, “I sat up last night and made a list of questions I’d like you to answer for me.”

There were twenty-five of them. 

“My first question is this: ‘Was I a good mother?’”

The question was loaded with reproach. Before I could muster an answer, I had to tamp down exasperation. She turned somersaults in the hallway with us when we were little. She scored Little League games; she drove us to lessons, taught us to love books, helped us pursue any interest. She always gave us love. Yes, she had been a good mother.

Yet I was fed up, craving a mother who was less needy. More specifically, I craved a mother who found places to deposit her need that weren’t on top of a feverish daughter grieving the loss of her father.

Stewing, I tried to formulate an answer that would be honest yet unobjectionable, but then my brother stepped in. Gesturing to his five-year-old—at that moment cautiously peering under the skirt of a Martha Washington bell bought at Mount Vernon in 1976—he simply said, “She’s here, isn’t she? If you hadn’t been a good mother, she wouldn’t be here.” 

***

During the months of my father’s final decline, my mother had found a repository for some of her need: her new relationship deepened, and she started spending time in California with her “friend.” Eventually, Mom held a massive garage sale, stored her remaining possessions, and moved to California.

Over time, we learned more about my mother’s new boyfriend. Whereas my father had been a vocal professor and opera singer, her new friend, Dan, was a truck driver. There were also differences in personality—which became apparent when we met Dan.

A year after I’d received my mother’s first shocking letter in the mail, Mom and Dan decided to attend a high school reunion in Minnesota, where we lived. It had been a rocky year for us all. Not only had my dad died, but my sister had cut off all communication with our mother. Thus, it felt important to affirm loyalty, despite the fissures. I wanted them to come to our home, where we could meet her beau and take a step forward.

Before their visit, I asked what kinds of things Dan liked to eat and if he had any food issues. The response was, “Dan says you should make a roast and potatoes. And he likes bread.”

We were to put away the recipe books and follow orders.

On the evening of the meeting, a roast slow-cooked in the crock pot as Dan, three-hundred pounds punctuated by muttonchops, shook our hands vigorously. He was chatty, a dramatic contrast to my dad. He was jokey though not funny, again a departure. He complimented my mom, loudly, which my dad had rarely done.

And within five minutes, profoundly unlike my dad, he had worked the words Spics and poofs into casual conversation. 

Stunned by the easily expressed bigotry, I was speechless. Then, as the words sank in, I experienced an all-over body flush. My brain knocked against my skull: “No, no, no. He can’t… No. no. no. This is—what is this? I have to say something.”

I remained silent. In the tangled web of that previous year, with everyone barely hanging on to anyone else, with so many hurt feelings, this evening of acknowledging my mom’s hard-wrought choices was pivotal. I couldn’t see how to walk the line between protecting my principles and keeping my mother.

Instead, I snapped the baby into his high chair, dodging the plastic spoon he waved wildly around my head. As my husband and I exchanged panic-stricken glances, I worked at taming my reaction to Dan—before becoming distracted by the spectacle unfolding at the table. Not only was Dan homophobic and racist, he was graceless. While chomping his roast and potatoes, he also gulped down most of the mandatory bread. Rather than asking that the board of bread be passed down to him from the far end of the table, he stood from his chair each time he wanted more, meat knife in hand, reached down the three feet of the table, across everyone’s plates, and speared a new piece.

Small talk and hope for a harmonious familial transition evaporated somewhere between the word Spic and the seventh slice of bread floating across the dinner table. Awestruck, I spooned rice cereal into my son’s mouth. We floundered through the evening, me with a nugget of sadness in my gut. In the past, I had sometimes been puzzled by my mother, but this was a new feeling.

When I was young, one of our babysitters was a 6’ 7” black man named Arthur. In 1970s Montana, a 6’ 7” black man was more than unusual, and he certainly wasn’t greeted with acceptance. Without thought, my parents embraced him. They loved Arthur. We kids loved Arthur. Outside of admiring the reach of his Afro, all we cared about was that he came into the house with a huge smile and the energy to help us plan mischief.

Yet Dan would have had a word for Arthur.

I later asked my mom what she was doing with someone like Dan–pointing out that offensive language had never been tolerated in my childhood home. “Oh, I just shut my ears when he starts in. I don’t want conflict, so I don’t listen.”

There hadn’t been conflict in her marriage with my dad, either. There hadn’t been conflict during the gloaming when I burrowed into my car fort and absorbed my mother’s version of the world as it drifted down the dashboard. In that moment, twenty-five years later, I unwove my legs from hers and rolled away to face the engine, fetal, my vision locked on a hanging wire. 

***

Once I got past the shock of the man my mom had chosen, I pressed her to explain what she saw in Dan. Smiling coyly, she explained, “He’s a good kisser.” 

Now that was lonely.

His kisses worked magic: they were going to get married. She wondered if I’d fly out and stand up with her as witness. Uncertain, I considered her request. We were tight for money, and my innards were tight with irritation, recrimination.

Trembling on the taut wire strung between love and anger, I inhaled, exhaled, and tipped to love. Of course I would be her witness.

Shortly before the wedding, too late for me to get a refund on the plane ticket, my mom called it off. Dan not only kissed, he ranted. After extended harangues–she didn’t order right at a restaurant one time, and she didn’t put a stamp correctly on an envelope another time–Mom realized her stomach hurt in this relationship. Then there was his habit of borrowing money, not so much requesting but, rather, telling her how much he needed. She also discovered he kept side relationships with other women brewing. She called off the wedding.

In lieu of a ceremony, she moved in with him. Rants continued. Money “lending” continued.

After more than a year, she moved out and rented her own apartment, a haven from his temper. They continued to date until one night, after they’d attended a bagpipe concert, Dan had a heart attack outside of his house, fell, and hit his head; as my mom dialed 911, he bled from the ears, his lips turned blue, and he died. 

***

A few weeks later, another guy my mom went to high school with called. They dated for a bit. The report was that he didn’t rant.

I didn’t ask what kind of kisser he was.

After him, there was another—“crazy”—and another—“weird”—and so it went. Then, one day, she called to announce she’d rewritten her will. Because she and my sister remained estranged, Mom had decided to cut all three children out of her estate and leave everything to her grandchildren. 

I understood her logic, but oh damn was I tired of being understanding. We hung up, the connection severed. 

From then on, stunned, bruised anew, exhausted, I listened distantly to my mother’s accounts of each new man. “The itching from his eczema’s so bad that he takes boiling hot showers. He looks like a lobster.” “He was a big-time professor. He has his own website. When I’m talking, he falls asleep in the middle of my sentences.” “He spent over $80 on the buffet!” 

Ultimately, my dad didn’t get his happy ending, but my mom continued to work on hers, dating a handful of men in a handful of years, until at last she met an appealing groom. She is 79 and in good health; he is 91, memory slipping. Not natural as a caretaker, she spends her days arranging a mask of deliberate affection over a thrum of annoyance. He can’t remember where the waste basket is. He got lost for hours one day until the police found him on a bench outside Target. She has a desire to travel, but his limitations keep them within a few miles of home. They watch Jeopardy together, and even though she flinches at the volume his ears require, she enjoys that shared half hour. He sets the thermostat too high for her comfort; in response, she wears a swimsuit. She quilts, cross-stitches, reads, attends club meetings, does aqua aerobics, meets with a trainer at the gym. Nearing 80 years old, she has discovered that she can do push-ups. He is fading while she finds ways to blossom. 

***

All her life, my mother longed to be part of a Love Story. When she was young, she pursued the wrong guy. When she was older, she became a serial dater, unable to rest until she found someone to declare she made his heart go tha-thump.

Now, in a hot, loud house, she sorts through boxes of fabric—quickly, for mess bothers her husband. Many days, they share an In-N-Out Burger. He can’t remember his grandkids’ names. She beads bracelets. They laugh at wordplay. 

He stays in his pajamas much of the day. 

She reads late into the night.

On her bed, the center of a pool of light, she leans back, rubs her eyes, adjusts her legs. She flips the page.

At the end of it all, in the silence, she is alone.




Jocelyn Pihlaja has been teaching English at the college level since 1991. She has a husband who cooks dinner every night, kids who hold up hands requesting “Silence!” when their reading is interrupted, and a blog, O Mighty Crisis. Her writing has appeared on Mamalode, BLUNTmoms, The Indie Chicks, The Good Men Project, Mamapedia, In the Powder Room, elephant journal, The Mid, and Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. She also is a regular contributor to a local public radio program, Women's Words, where she delights in wearing huge headphones--and not just because they remind her she remembered to wear earrings that day.

Q&A

Q: What inspired this essay?
A: I’ve always been drawn to accounts of families and their dynamics, but for most of my life, it never occurred to me that my own family had a story, which is a very peculiar disconnect. Then, when I was in my mid-thirties, my nuclear family underwent some seismic shifts. In the years since then, I’ve tried to sift through those events and riddle out their nuances; eventually, I realized I needed to cast it as a story before I could figure out its edges. Writing clarifies thinking. I needed clearer thinking. So I wrote.

Q: What writers or books do you consider influences?
A: Whenever my writing well starts coughing up dust, all I have to do is bend my head over fantastic books, and the well echoes with burbles. For me, the prose of Wallace Stegner stands out as lyrical, thoughtful, and masterful. I also am a huge fan of Elena Ferrante; as an author, she is fierce. In terms of specific books, I would note that the writing in John Williams’ Stoner struck me as simultaneously spare and rich--and that I recently finished, mouth agape, Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come. Fuller is honest, raw, unflinching, and full of humor when others would opt for pain. Just as wonderful is the tautness of her writing on the sentence level. There is not a single throwaway word in that book, not a single lazy clause.

Q: What’s the most important writing advice you’ve received? Is it reflected in this essay?
A: “Tighten, tighten, tighten.” As far as tightening goes, this essay is—ahem—somewhere on the continuum between my love of an 80-word sentence and my developing awareness that fewer words can be more powerful. Complicating things further: this is the longest piece I’ve ever written, which added the challenge of structural “tightening.” All in all, I’d have to say: no, this piece is not tight. However, in writing it, I learned a whole lot about getting there.

Q: Where do you write? 
A: All of my ideas come when I’m running or moving my body. Were it not for my legs and my love of a good sweat, I’d have nothing. But when I get outside in the elements, all the rest of life falls away, and my brain realizes what it’s thinking. Thoughts pipping, I return home, plop down at the computer, and launch into the fraught process of typing seven words, hitting the backspace key, tapping out four words, reading them out loud, adding in five more, hitting delete, scrolling down and recording a few random notes for later in the piece, and then staring, again, at the whiteness of the page.  

Second Place: Nonfiction