The Backstories

The Backstories

for “Refusing Silence” by Catherine Mauk

My discovery of Hannah’s tapestries in Oslo—quite through happenstance—triggered my curiosity and led me deeper into her story and work; the Nazi occupation of Norway; my own ignorance about nuclear proliferation; the courage of people like Hannah and those who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; and ultimately, to a group of doctors in Australia. In my mind, all of these seemed to assimilate around the idea of ‘refusing silence.’  But the challenge of writing an essay about them was in integrating separate threads that did not braid easily and did not lend themselves to a consistent voice. Through many drafts I wondered if I was dealing with two different essays and yet, each time I separated them, one begged for the other. In earlier drafts I had far more factual detail but found, as compelling as they seemed, too many facts took the reader out of one story and voice and into quite another. One person who critiqued an earlier draft suggested I develop the factual essay about Australia’s response to the ban treaty as a journalistic piece and leave Hannah out altogether, but I had no interest in that approach. As a writer, I am drawn to literary nonfiction where I can interleave seemingly disparate complexities into a single narrative that affects the reader at a more visceral level than facts often do. In the end, a light touch on the factual detail and keeping Hannah present throughout is what I settled on to give the piece its coherence.

for “Open Case” by Dan Campion

The jewelry shop in the poem was located in a storefront on the north side of Chicago Avenue, a block or so east of Central Avenue, in the Chicago West Side neighborhood where I grew up. That, at least, is what my memory says of it. Even in the internet age the majority of places and events slip through the net of documentation that might aid “soft” memory and set right its errors.

In rearranging a bookshelf recently, I removed from its frame a snapshot of me as a little boy that I was certain had been taken in a Chicago city park (renamed several times since I was that boy) a mile or so south of the jewelry shop. On the back of the photograph, in my mother’s hand, was written: “Danny in Deerfield, July 1953,” which places the scene twenty-odd miles to the northwest of where I thought it was.

Between the transience of things and the tricks of memory, our purchase on our past is infirm. This hardly prevents us from sifting through it for sustenance and support, nor should it—nor, for that matter, can it. Without efforts of memory to reconstruct comprehensible, if imperfect, impressions of the past, we lose ourselves entirely.

The late artist Joseph Patrick, whose work I much admire, painted many pictures of marketplaces in Oaxaca. These paintings are remarkable as both photorealistic renditions of tarpaulin sunshades, tables of goods, and market vendors, and as abstract compositions of color, shape, and tone. By combining childhood memory, jewelers’ wares, and abstract form, in “Open Case” I attempted to emulate Joe Patrick’s technique of making something timeless out of time itself.

for “There’s Something I’ve Got To Tell You” by Patrick J Murphy

Northern Florida rests on vast limestone caverns, and the thought of secret waters moving in the darkness below our feet probably leads us to have an affinity for the strange and unusual. After a while, sometimes, this collection of strange and unusual things joins together and forms a unity. One of the strangest elements in the story is Lake Jackson. The hydraulic mysteries mentioned actually exist and when the lake is dry, Tallahassee holds what they call the “Bare Bottom Run.” Then it fills again. And Northern Florida is one of the lightning strike capitals of the country. The risks of infidelity are obvious and the actions of partners are never completely predictable. The addition of a construction worker as cuckold was a touch I rather enjoyed and which seemed to work well. To this point, it’s all just a collection of the strange, coming together. But the dreams are a little worrisome. I mean, I was just writing along, having a bit of fun, and then there they were, just suddenly there, on the page, with aunts and toenails and gods and all, and I had to ask myself, “What kind of person comes up with that stuff?” There was no good answer forthcoming, and therapy didn’t seem available, so since then there’s just watchful waiting to see if the brain lightning will strike again.

for “The Battle” by Rebecca Reynolds

“The Battle” came together as a patchworked piece I abandoned and returned to over the course of several years. While I have a tendency to believe my best stories are born swiftly and completely in a matter of days, there was something about “The Battle” that I did not want to give up on, despite at least ten revisions that seemed to go nowhere and the general sense of messiness I felt whenever confronting the story. Originally, the idea for the story came from another mother confessing to me that no matter how busy she was, she found time every day to pray for her children, and that she was meticulously specific in these prayers, sometimes writing lists beforehand to organize items by importance and urgency. Her frazzled earnestness grew into the character of Helen, who also utilizes this prayer trick as a means to channel her worries into hope. Though initially, I viewed Helen with a bit of a sneering arrogance—how silly she must be to believe her prayer trick works!—through the revisions, I learned to write her with less condescension and with more heart, and by the end I found myself quite attached. As a mother of three boys, it is safe to say that I am not unfamiliar with Helen’s sense of holding the world on her shoulders, nor am I unfamiliar with the occasional impulse—perverse as it may be—to let everything come crashing down in order to grasp at a moment of respite.

for “Beloved Son” by Julie L. Moore

Several years ago, I enjoyed a retreat at Image’s Glen Workshop in Santa Fe. I spent my mornings reading and writing poetry, my afternoons hiking the trails in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and my evenings with friends, letting their art, music, creative writing, and worship inspire me. Amid such an enriching week, I also kept up with the news, and one of those days, I read about eleven-year-old Liang Yaoyi in South China’s Guangdong Province. Diagnosed with brain cancer, he had suffered through failed treatments. I was moved by his decision to donate his organs to other children because he wanted to make a lasting mark on the world. As he said, he wanted to be “great.” I was captivated and read every article I could about it. The same photograph showed up every time, a lasting tribute to the boy who chose to give others renewed life, and hopefully, the long life he was deprived of. To be sure, young Liang had learned the true meaning of greatness: sacrificial generosity. And what a tough ask of his parents, who had to lose him first to death, then a second time, as the doctors harvested his organs. All of them circled his corpse on the gurney and bowed before him three times. To paraphrase Keats, they knew Liang was leaving a kind of immortal work behind, an expression of deep beauty, that made his parents proud. I didn’t want him forgotten, so I wrote the poem.