Essaying Is Questioning
A Jill and Jill Conversation
|If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays
By Jill Christman
228 pp. University of Nebraska Press, $21.95
Released September 2022
When I first read Jill Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, eight years after its 2011 publication, I wrote her a letter that began: “From the opening chapter of Darkroom, I knew I had found the book I had been craving for so long, the attention to memory, the fabrication of scene, the fragmentation.” I admire work that calls attention to itself, and I also appreciate a writer who alludes to the role of imagination and invention in writing one’s life through the hazy lens of memory. Christman’s memoir—a collage of image and text, excerpts from diaries and letters, and drawings—reads as a work in progress due to her allusions to the writing itself: “the autobiographical subject in the present tense should be working through… arriving…. I have not arrived.” Standing in the darkroom of memory, Christman zooms in on childhood sexual trauma, accidental death, and psychological trauma with self-awareness, humor, and an engaging voice that feels like a conversation over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. It’s one of the elements of Christman’s writing I admire most: her awareness that she’s sharing the page with the reader.
In her brilliant new essay collection, If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays, Christman continues to include references to the crafting of an essay, the interrogation of memory and the self, as well as speculation (see title), while extending the view beyond the self to create a portrait of her family—her husband, Mark, and their two children, Ella and Henry. Within these striking essays, Christman wrestles with her penchant for worry and her fear and shame of/from failing others, yet she also claims the power and beauty of her own body, both as a twenty-year-old girl and a forty-something woman, mother, wife, professor, early morning spinning class front-rower, and essayist. But Jill Christman is not simply an essayist, she’s an Essayist’s Essayist. Every time I read her work, I learn so much about essay writing—not only from the essays themselves, but in the moments when she explains how she thinks about the essay and even how she teaches the essay in her classroom.
Recently, Jill and I had a Zoom conversation, and while we have never met in person, the hour or so we visited felt familiar—an experience Christman created through the immersive essays of her beautiful collection. We talked structure, the significance of objects in her work, the question at the core of all of her work, speculation in essays, writing children, and more I won’t mention in this introduction. I’ll let you be surprised, in honor of Jill Christman’s ability to surprise her readers in every essay.
JT: Let’s start with the structure of your collection. The epigraph to the book is “since feeling is first” by e.e. cummings, and the book is divided into three sections, each subtitled with lines from the poem—“since feeling is first,” “we are for each other,” and “and death I think is no parentheses.”
JC: I come from a family of artists, and early on, before I was even writing, one of the fundamental things my dad taught me about photography was the rule of threes—which divides a canvas into three rows and three columns, forming a kind of grid, with intersections of balance and counterbalance—basically, the places with energy where the viewer’s eye will land. I took my dad’s photography class when he was a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design; the rule of threes was a very early thing that he that he taught about composition, but as his kid, I’d grown up with the idea. I was thinking about the rule of threes when I built If This Were Fiction. A lot of these essays had been previously published, and I was selective about which to put in—and which to leave out. I realized at one point the collection truly was a love story, three different love stories. The love for my husband, Mark, and of course, for our children, but also for Colin [Christman’s first fiancé, who died young in a car accident] and me, because ours was the foundational love that taught me both how to love myself and about loss. I wanted to consider these three different kinds of love.
JT: So many of your essays are centered around an object—a googly eye, a stone pear, an avocado, a purse.
JC: It’s very rare that I have an essay begin with an idea. I need to write myself to any ideas that might be lurking beneath the surface. My essays almost always begin in an image, but sometimes the genesis is a line of dialogue or a remembered scene that I can’t leave behind. For example, “The Googly Eye” did not begin with an image of a googly eye. The essay began when Ella said, “I thought it would be different.” That line of dialogue stuck in the deep part of my mind—“I thought it would be different”—and the essay was my attempt to figure out why.
Now, “The Avocado” began very literally, concretely. I was at a dinner party, sitting at the kitchen bar, and we were cooking. I was assigned the task of cutting the avocado for the salad—which I did—and I was transported. For reasons I can’t quite explain, the act of cutting through the tough skin of that avocado in an Indianapolis kitchen accessed a memory from Costa Rica, some twenty-five years earlier, as if I’d been sucked through a portal. I took the pit home with me and proceeded to write that essay unusually quickly—especially for me! I think I’m prouder of that essay than any other I’ve written because it feels so true to me. It may be one of the truest, most distilled, things I’ve ever managed to say.
JT: Speaking of questions, they pervade your work. At times, entire paragraphs consist of a list of questions.
JC: For me essaying is questioning, so I don’t know how to separate the two. If I know something, I’m not going to write an essay about it. Why would I bother? At the 2007 NonfictioNOW in Iowa City, Pico Iyer gave a talk in which he said, essentially, that when he’s working on an essay, if he arrives at an answer, he knows his question wasn’t good enough. He keeps writing, he said, until he arrives at “an unanswerable question.” Then, he said, he knows he’s “almost there.” I remember thinking, Yes! This is exactly how the process feels to me. When I start an essay, I often have a question that feels true, such as, “Why would I bite a stone pear?” If, in the course of writing, I arrive at an answer, I realize that my question was too simple, and so I keep writing until I find that unanswerable question—and then I know I’m nearing the end.
There are exceptions. Sometimes I write to an answer, but I’ve noticed lately that there’s only one that feels true—that I know for sure—and that is love. I once heard Cheryl Strayed say that our jobs as essayists was to find the “truest” thing—and this is a big job, isn’t it? It’s hard because there are so many things that can seem to be standing between us and that truth—our memories, our families, our own fears and insecurities. So much. Writing “Going Back to Plum Island,” I thought about this a lot because I was writing a subject (my childhood sexual abuse) that I had wanted to leave alone for once: “Truth is complicated and we all know that facts can lie. There is always a level more true: true, truer, truest—and then something beyond that we will never reach. How true is true enough?”
I think that readers know when you’re working your hardest to tell the truth or not. There are so many reasons we can’t get to that truest thing—so that’s the questioning process for me.
JT: In these essays, it’s clear that you’re trying to get it right. Some examples:
Wait. Okay. Hold on. Let me try again. (60)
I asked my husband to read an early draft of this essay. (103)
I want to give you this background, make sure you are clear on the setting before I get to the part that’s harder to hear, almost impossible to believe, except I do believe it. (186)
JC: There’s a fiction writer, Sandy Huss, long retired from the University of Alabama. I was a fiction writer before I was a nonfiction writer because I didn’t know it was a choice, back then, to write our true stories as true stories. So instead I wrote poorly veiled autobiography. Alabama did let me write a memoir for my thesis, which, to my knowledge, was the first memoir written for an M.F.A., because there was no program at the time. I’ve never had a class in creative nonfiction.
JT: I’ve had one.
JC: So, about fiction, it was on a short story, and it was a note she wrote in the margin in her beautiful writing, “Before the manuscript there is silence. The manuscript breaks the silence. Why here? Why now?” So, I’m always thinking Why here? Why now? When I tell the story of the avocado I’m telling it from this place, and I sometimes physically put myself there because there’s a moment in the writing of “The Avocado” I remember so specifically: I was sitting on my couch here in Muncie, Indiana, and I though Oh, I want to look at the intersection where Colin died—and I realized with Google maps I could do exactly that. So I did. And there I was thousands of miles and decades away from the accident, looking at the exact place where Colin’s life ended. I almost couldn’t breathe and then I started to cry because I had this sudden realization that Colin and his friends had died hungry. They’d stayed late at the hangar, missing dinner, and they were on their way to get pizza when the truck hit them. Before, I hadn’t been a parent, so this thought hadn’t occurred to me. Colin died hungry. Obviously, that’s the kind of moment in writing you don’t plan. You can’t think I’m going to write this moment of recognition. You have to be in it and then that kind of thing happens. I couldn’t have written that moment before I was a mom. That friction between the now-narrator and the then-self plays out on the page.
JT: I’d like to ask another questioning-related question. A few times in the essays, you ask, “Now what?” or “What now?” Do you see this question as a guiding one for you as an essayist or your essays, or one applicable to the genre itself?
JC: Some version of “What now?” is at the core of all my essays, I think, but only sometimes do I come right out and say it. As to whether this question is applicable to the genre itself? I’d say yes. I worked with Trish Hampl at the University of Minnesota many years ago and one of many things she said that has stuck in my head and informed my writing and teaching ever since is that, in memoir and personal essay, we return to a particular time or event in order to ask an urgent question so that we might move forward. It’s the so that we might move forward that’s guided me all these years—this idea that in working with memory we form a relationship with the past that allows us to move through the end of the essay and into the future.
I was thinking about your essay, “On Lasts,” when you write, “In college I had an American-literature professor who liked to pose the question, ‘What happens after the last page?’ I’d raise my hand to answer, my mind running wild at the idea of what happens after an ending.”
This metaphor just popped to mind, but you know how a sprinter has to keep going past the finish line? A sprinter can’t stop at the line; she has to keep going. I do that when I write essays.
I sprint past the finish line. I think how I wouldn’t be writing an essay if I didn’t need to spend some time thinking about what happens when we come out the other end of it.
Sometimes I leave the traces of that question there because it’s so central; other times I erase those smudges—but there’s always an echo of “Now what?”
JT: Let’s stay with questioning. Speculation occurs in interesting ways in your work. There’s a section that begins, “If I were in a movie.” And the line that’s the title phrase, “If this were fiction,” and another imagined moment that begins, “I can tell myself a different story.”
JC: You know that wonderful Brevity essay, “Perhapsing: Speculation in Creative Nonfiction,” by Lisa Knopp? In my own work, the imagining of other possibilities, past or future, opens new layers of questioning. Speculation is my way of finding ideas and empathy beyond the limited confines of my own geography, intellect, experience, and physicality. Speculation cracks memory open like an egg, surprising me and pushing me to a deeper level of accountability and truth.
If this were fiction—perhaps I could present that day and night in Guatemala as the apex of my fearlessness wading into that bat-hung cave lying in the grass with my large lizard friend. Shouldn’t I have been afraid of him? But this is not fiction and certainly there were other moments of both recklessness and jolting caution to litter the narrative path winding towards the paralyzing fear of new motherhood. (47)
I think in the initial writing of “The River Cave,” my hope was to point to this “apex of my fearlessness” from which I had come down. I wanted there to be an answer and I wanted that to be the answer. I wanted to be okay. But speculation said: “Sorry, Jill. It’s not that easy.”
JT: I appreciate the pedagogical and craft advice in this book. In one essay, a student asks, “How long do you have to wait after something happens before you have the distance you need to write about it objectively?” Another common question in the essay classroom, “Can I write about something I’ve already written about? Is it okay to write the same material?” When this comes up, I share a post from Lee Martin’s blog about writing the same material. He writes, “I keep trying to write myself out of it, but I never quite succeed. That’s why I have to go back and tell it again.”
In the final essay, “Spinning,” you write:
When will I stop? It’s been 24 years, I am in what I’m hoping is the dead middle of an extraordinary lucky life. I have written and written and written the story of our love, the sad tale of our loss. Enough is enough. What more is there to say? (197)
JC: I’m with Lee in that I don’t think the things we write are ever finished. Lee will never be done writing his father. Me? I will write Colin’s accident and the confluence of love and fear for the rest of my life because, I suppose, this is the central tension in my brain. It’s how I think and navigate the world, so it is also the way I navigate my writing. As memoirists, we return to the same moments in memory again and again, until these return trips are more about the nature of memory and our relationship with the past than about us. And each time we go back and ask Why here? Why now? everything changes, doesn’t it?
Anything in any essay in this whole book would be different from where I’m sitting now as Ella leaves for college. And it will be different again even a month from now. The reason we can write moments and obsessions and losses again and again is because each time we go back, we go for a particular purpose—and nothing is ever the same.
JT: The book is bracketed by Colin in the opening essay and the final essay, but he also appears in other essays. Would you say he’s a ghost haunting the book?
JC: I think the answer to that might be no. I don’t feel haunted by Colin. I think of Colin more as an angel. Everyone in this family knows about him. That is an open conversation. We still think of him every time we pass his birthday or the day of his death—this November, he will have been gone thirty-three years. A whole Jesus lifetime! I would say Colin is an angel inhabiting the book.
JT: One of the biggest surprises for me in the collection is the essay, “Aishkyne,” which beings with this you in a weary moment, waiting in a Starbucks drive thru grading essays. Then there’s a Twitter contest before the essay closes with an apology to your mother. You’ve already explained that you don’t start an essay if you know the answer to the question, but this feels like something else, a strategy that I love and admire in essays, the unexpected turn. The surprise of it. Can you talk about writing that essay?
JC: I really did read about the Southwest Airlines #Wanttogetaway contest in the Starbucks line, and I really did want to get away. I thought, I’m an essayist. I can do this. I’m going to win this flight. All that was true, but there was really no there there, but I kept writing these little essays and then it just happened. I realized that what I was thinking about was my mom. My mom is a complicated character, and she lets me write my true story. None of this is easy for her to read and she reads everything I write. I don’t hold it back from her and I love her like crazy—and also neither of us can ever fully extract the thorn in our relationship: “You didn’t protect me I needed to be protected.” Much to her dismay—and maybe even mine!—I’m never done writing my relationship with a mother who always loved me so fully and so deeply and who also made some terrible mistakes that hurt me. How many mistakes have I made as a mother? So many. I fumble and curse and love my way through them. I can’t tell you how long I’ve carried the story of the dirty overalls and thought Oh, it really was a funny story about how embarrassing it was that my mother showed up looking like that. It took me that many years to have any kind of real self-reflection.
JT: I want to talk about the ways you write about yourself and your body in the collection. In her 2020 bibliomemoir, The Wanting Was a Wilderness, Alden Jones writes:
Physical self-description is one of the harder things for a memoirist to do. Especially a female American one. Self-depreciation is expected, and too easy—no one will be put off by you if you say you thought you were fat or that something was aesthetically ‘wrong’ with you, even if the photographic evidence suggests otherwise. This is expected of American women and girls. But to state in some unqualified manner that you were attractive is a surefire way to discontinue a reader’s sympathies. (73)
In the opening paragraph of “The Avocado,” you write, “Twenty years old, blue-eyed and dark-haired, I didn’t know my own beauty, would have never thought to consider such a phrase—my own beauty—but I held a growing sense of my body’s place at the center of things.”
This essay becomes about the power of the body, which is echoed in “Spinning,” when you are fortysomething in an early morning spinning class and proud of your body and how “it’s holding up.” I think this is something we don’t see enough in nonfiction written by women, the appreciation and admiration of one’s own body and its power, allure, sexiness. Its pleasure. I would love to hear your thoughts about this pattern in writing and how you’re challenging it.
JC: When I wrote that first paragraph, I thought, Oh I can’t put that. I thought, Yeah I can, because it’s true, I was. I’ve written the eating disorders and the body dysmorphia, but I’ve also lived in this body for a long time, so I’ve learned a lot.
JT: You write lust very well, desire described as an electric current, buzzing. Often when we get writing from our students about sex it’s about sexual assault or abuse. It’s rarely about the good stuff. I’d love to teach your essay about meeting Colin or the one about a night at the dive bar in graduate school with Mark to ask students why we don’t write those moments more, the ones when we when we fully and openly give ourselves to somebody. The celebration of desire.
JC: I mean, I’ve certainly written the other two, but I love my body. I know how to love and be loved. I don’t want to model that we have to go to dark places every time, and I don’t want to model privileging those dark places over the joy and the light and the lust. All that good stuff.
JT: One of the most powerful moments for me was the moment of Henry’s birth. I don’t want to include it here because it’s the end of the essay, and the ending needs the build up to it to really access the awe of the moment, the power of the female body.
JC: I’m not one of those people who says being pregnant was wonderful, but childbirth, damn, that’s a powerful thing to be able to do, isn’t it? When I was bringing Henry into the world, I felt like this goddess of creation. Darkroom includes those tentative first questions, “Can I have a baby?”— and by the time Henry came along the answer was “Fuck yes.”
JT: There have been articles and AWP sessions about parents writing their children, regarding the ethics of it, the ways to navigate it. But what I want to know is why you write your children, Ella and Henry.
JC: Having Ella and Henry has made me a much better writer for one fundamental reason: My children raised the stakes for everything I care about. There is no topic I can think about that doesn’t involve me thinking them forward into the world. Writing never mattered as much before Ella and Henry. They’re the reason for everything.
Jill Christman is the author of If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays (University of Nebraska Press, 2022), two memoirs—Darkroom: A Family Exposure and Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood—and essays in magazines such as Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and Iron Horse Literary Review. A 2020 NEA Fellow and senior editor for River Teeth, she teaches at Ball State University. Visit her at jillchristman.com.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction, a collection of personal essays. A Distant Town: Stories, won the 2021 Jeanne Leiby Chapbook Contest and was published by The Florida Review in Summer 2022. She is the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction and the forthcoming The Essay Form(s) from Columbia University Press. Her essays have appeared in AGNI, Brevity, Gulf Coast, Hotel Amerika, LitMag, River Teeth, Southwest Review, and The Paris Review Daily, among others. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas.
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