Sometime after World War II, the field of literature—readers, writers, publishers, and commentators—split in two, leaving academics and historians on one side and current producers—makers of what in the visual arts is now called ”contemporary studio practice”—on the other. Frequent wailing about the death of reading refers primarily to the audience for this branch of writing, which, like contemporary art, depends largely on subsidy and the charity of the more successful. Even best-sellers, if they make serious attempts to advance what writing can do, and not just how many copies it can sell, often include expressions of gratitude like this, from James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love:
I would like to thank the people who gave me places to write away from the big cities, namely Tanya and Slava Ilyushenko, and John Byrne and Tilda Swinton; Leslie Plommer, for a berth in Berlin . . . .
and there follows a lengthy list of manuscript readers, volunteer editors, those who helped with details of translation, and friends who offered various kinds of support. Such books, while written by a single, solitary soul, are really generated by armies, and reading their writers’ acknowledgements can add to the discouragements faced by the aspiring writer. While commercial entertainments in book form, which are often preceded or followed by film and TV versions, continue to capture mass audiences and earn fortunes, the writer concerned with advancing the range of language and what it can talk about, who usually lacks the means to advertise, struggles just to find the audience she knows is out there.
In this, Lynn Kilpatrick’s experience is only too familiar. As a student, she won praise from the established writers who were her teachers, who almost universally supplement their royalties with workshops and university classes which they often must organize themselves. Their support put her in touch with the University of Alabama Press, which published a collection of her work, In the House, in their prestigious FC2 imprint. This sort of early success can set a young writer up for a shock later, a trace of which comes through Kilpatrick’s spirited and self-deprecating account of what followed for her:
After my book came out, I expected to feel like I really accomplished something, which I did, but I also was left with a “what now?” feeling. I definitely didn’t want to just keep doing what I had been doing, no matter how much I liked that at the time.I was teaching a Novel Writing class at SLCC, so I wrote a novel in a form that was difficult [for] me, a slightly post-apocalyptic setting that started at point A and moved forward in a straight narrative line. That is super hard for me! But I did finish it, and I’ve had absolutely no luck finding an agent for that book.
I also wrote, sometime in the indeterminate past, a mystery novel set in Idaho. I am hoping to finish that and also try to find an agent. Ha! The folly.
Part of the challenge she refers to is, ironically, the first thing that elevates her writing and makes it compelling for readers. She’s worked hard to acquire the essential credential of today’s writers; not just the MFA degree, but the pellucid style of meticulously crafted prose it preaches (and insists on). Plenty of would-be writers have done this, and most then struggle to distinguish themselves from the consequently high-grade run-of-the-pack. In the House contains a miscellany of unconventional—except at creative writing workshops—short pieces that include sketches, studies, short plays, instructions, and, most characteristic, her lists. These are broken, paradoxical in a manner that can be traced back to Jorge Luis Borges, so that the topic becomes a metaphor and otherwise hidden connections are revealed. In one example, the ‘Confined Spaces’ in which the narrator finds herself include Elevators, Closets, and Commuter Trains, but also the Academy, Marriage, and States In The West In Which A Conservative Majority Rules. And this is where Kilpatrick steps out from the crowd; what differentiates her from most of what fills the small quarterly magazines is that she lays the template of today’s best artistic writing over the more familiar, at least to us, lives of Western housewives, working women, professors, students, and, because they are women, witnesses to the lives and characters of men. And she does this in a spare manner, not so much laconic as cautious, not as pushy as the feelings she reveals might motivate. It’s as though the polite surface of post-emigration society is preserved, but rendered transparent so that desperation, loneliness, and uncertainty become palpable, in place of the passive aggression that is superficially the only hint that all is not as it seems.
As if in hesitant response to an inquiry, the anonymous narrator of “Bitter On The Tongue” supplies seemingly disconnected observations about a potential mate:
. . . Dave’s presence in my life was circumscribed, shall we say, by events out of his control.A man like him and a woman like me, we were like two trains leaving from two separate stations at two different times, heading in two different directions.
He was a lot of things besides short: smart, sure smart, witty, and nice. Maybe too nice, nice in a way that makes your teeth ache, that glossy, just too nice.
He, of course, blamed himself, as if I were some mountain he had failed to conquer . . . .
He told me he that he liked to watch me, early in the morning, from a distance.
In place of events, there are only limits:
Our relationship consisted of things to do without taking off our shirts, things to do wearing many layers, outdoor things . . .
And rationalizations made:
Marriage is not about bone structure.
Finally, she wraps it up with a coded explanation:
He was a drug, not like aspirin, not a useful drug, but sugar or caffeine. I was addicted, I needed the drug, but I didn’t love him. I didn’t love the drug, I loved the feeling of running my tongue over the residue on my teeth.And this is it. The ever after that, happily or not, lives on.
Addiction and addictive substances like sugar and caffeine are talked about a lot in LDS culture. Less often discussed is the impact of that culture on romance and marriage. Kilpatrick’s unfinished analogies often prompt her readers to complete them, so what must be left unsaid is spoken in the privacy of their own minds.
Writing classes are full of specious rules: “Show, don’t tell”; “Write what you know”; “Kill your little darlings.” But rules were meant to be broken, and the only rule writers must not break is to never stop writing. Some idea of what makes that simple-sounding prescription so challenging can be found in Kilpatrick’s description of her search for the key to a single project:
But my heart is really in this nonfiction book that has me stymied, a bit, in terms of how to blend all the parts and make it interesting to someone who is not me and didn’t grow up in Idaho. I don’t usually think a lot about the reader at this stage, but I’ve been reading many books lately that frustrate me, in terms of what I want them to do and what they actually do, so that’s caused me to reflect on how to engage readers in the story I want to tell. I tried doing the start at point A and move forward in time, and it’s really boring. I think the formal challenge forces me to think about events, memory, time, in new ways and those ways of putting things together make the stories interesting. The tension and drama arises from the leaps, I think, between ideas and also the compression of memories into tight, little forms. Since the story is itself about absences, the narrative arc benefits from the details or aspects that are left out.
If it takes a multitude—including, of course, readers—to produce a book, the relative scarcity of well-known writers outside mainstream publishing centers presents another hardship for those like Idaho native Lynn Kilpatrick. Collegial events like Read Local, where she’ll be in conversation with U of U Professor Jenn Gibbs, offer them a chance to connect with each other—to “benefit from the details or aspects of writing and publishing that are left out.” Thursday evening, the accommodating space of Finch Lane’s gallery, bordered by contemporary visual artworks that provide analogous experiences in other media, the two award-winning authors will share their words, written and otherwise, with each other, and with their readers.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.