“the Leech and Jordan, the Nitinat and Koksilah, the Oyster and Nimpkish, the Po and Arno”

fraser below lillooet
The Fraser River, below Lillooet

At 2 a.m., I was awake and thinking about the essay I thought I’d finished last night. I’d worked on it yesterday morning, then had to go down the coast to do errands, but as soon as I got home, I was back at my desk. I thought I had it and I went to bed with that deep satisfaction that comes when you complete something. Until I woke in the wee hours with the sense that there was still more to do. So I came downstairs, feeling my way in the dark, and switched on my small desk lamp that always makes me feel that I am in the best place in the world: my own room with its deep rose walls and Giotto ceiling, my books and papers all around me (some would say in disarray but mostly I know where everything is). I heard owls. The cat was delighted to find me awake.

Sometimes I feel constrained by form. I think of the essay in a particular way and I think I am writing that kind of essay. An argument, an anecdote, a piece of non-fiction (a term I dislike, esp. when paired with “creative”), a reflective narrative (on occasion), a memoir-ish construction, a series of questions and answers. A beginning, an ending. I’ve written versions of this essay and I know I will write other versions in the future. But the essay I’ve been working on is something else. It’s both objective and subjective. The passages based on memory or history are reconstructed and might not be objectively true. The passages based on human physiology are imaginary voyages into my own body. Its geography is dependent upon maps that might not be accurate in the Cartesian sense but I think the heart would approve. (Mine does. At least it does this morning.)

In the small hours, I realized that I had to push the actual physical structure more than I had by simply deciding to move some of the sections to a right-handed margin. Yes, I was pleased with how this worked but I wanted less reliance on river banks and dams and more flooding. So that’s what I did. I sat with my paper draft and tried to see how I could use the space to make my language advance its imagery and its innuendos. The final draft (or final until this morning) is nearly 7000 words and there is a structure, yes, but it’s not the kind I usually employ. There are connections across time and space. You’ll notice them if you give up the expectation that one thing leads to another in a straightforward pattern. Here’s a short passage from section 14.

the Deadman and Bonaparte, Upper Hat Creek,

Coldwater, and the Kispiox where my children waded on a hot day in July, the Leech and Jordan, the Nitinat and Koksilah, the Oyster and Nimpkish, the Po and Arno and the sweet Hoh and Queets and Ozette where I camped as a young woman, the Snake, the Escalante and Kanab, the Lost and the Warm and the Coeur d’Alene,

the Kern, the Mad, Klamath and Rowdy Creek,

the Lost, the Elk,

and the one I walk to season after season, near my home, where coho salmon swim in by starlight

and mergansers wait to feed on their eggs.

And if I sound excited, it’s because I am. Every time I finish something, I wonder if I’ve written everything I have to write. Maybe that’s it. And then I write something else. I’m kind of looking at my clutter (it’s an organized clutter. Maybe.) and wondering what I might find if I move things around.

Oh, and I still don’t have a title.


8 thoughts on ““the Leech and Jordan, the Nitinat and Koksilah, the Oyster and Nimpkish, the Po and Arno””

  1. So you just know I’m going to ask you this: what is it about the genre (?) or title (?) of (creative) non-fiction that doesn’t sit well with you? Narrative non-fiction is my favourite way of describing it and I LOVE it because it represents to me a way of presenting ‘facts’ that alters the perspective, form, cadence and order of everything to create something brand new. Do tell 🙂

    1. Andrea, I guess I think narrative non-fiction is one way to work in this genre. And what I’ve been doing lately is perhaps closer to what some people call the lyric essay. I don’t like these terms for a whole lot of reasons. I find them limiting, at least for my own work. And creative? I think it’s unsettling to use the term for this and not for other genres. It’s sort of condescending. To me. Others are ok with it. I once had a long conversation with someone who is prominent in the non-fiction world who argued that non-fiction must always be factual, that a writer must always be able to back up a statement, provide documentation, shouldn’t “invent” dialogue. And for journalism? Yeah. Maybe, or mostly. But I’m more interested in finding my own way. I love Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s recent Following the River, a work of many beautiful layers, where the narrative sections are balanced by poems, by surmises, by imaginative wonderings. It’s not that I don’t like the other approaches. I do. But I think there’s room for innovation, for the same kind of imaginative investigation that poets are free to pursue.

    1. I enjoyed writing about this particular essay, Leslie, because it presented some challenges that led me in new directions. I’m always interested in figuring out that strange path between poetry and prose.

      1. Interesting you say that. Chris grabbed Inishbream to read before I could, and she was just saying last night it reads like a poem.

      2. Well, that book began as a series of notebook prose “sketches” that I tried to turn into prose poems. I remember sharing them with a writing group in Victoria after I’d returned from Ireland and they all wanted to know what came between the sketches! So I found myself writing the connective tissue, so to speak! And then, and then, and then….

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