- Images, Landscapes, and the Restrained Alchemy of Short Prose
April is the cruelest month, breedingLilacs out of the dead land, mixingMemory and desire, stirringDull roots with spring rain.—T. S. Elliott, The Waste Land
I met Barrie Jean Borich in graduate school, in 2012, in a memoir workshop at DePaul University. I was 32 at the time, and Barrie's class was the first creative nonfiction workshop I had ever taken. The class was lively and we read voraciously, mostly essays of all shapes and sizes and forms; it was the first time I had read essays seriously and as literature. Years before, in a Barnes & Noble somewhere outside of Cleveland, I flipped through a copy of Best American Essays. I sipped black coffee out of a paper cup and felt confused by what I read, not understanding, really, what essays were, or perhaps having an expectation that they would be longer, or shorter, or more sensational, or have more curse words. I know now that they can be all of those things, and [End Page 217] none of those things, but at the time I didn't understand how essays worked, and I didn't understand how to approach them.
In Barrie's class we read essays by Bernard Cooper and Mary Clearman Blew and John Edgar Wideman. We read Brenda Miller and Dinah Lenny. Audre Lorde. Joy Castro. Dinty W. Moore. We read book-length memoirs and craft pieces. And, of course, we wrote.
"Tighten and get out sooner," Barrie commented on one scene I turned in. "Let the image do the work."
"Don't explain," she commented on another. "Let the image show us."
Barrie's instructions came like Siri's driving directions, one after the other, methodically, at just the right time. She was always right, too. Scenes were too long. Explanations were unnecessary. Emotions were abstract. It was all so easy to see after she pointed it out, like answers to a crossword puzzle or scratches in a car's clear coat.
"Let the image show us," she reminded me over and over. "Find fresher language."
Barrie helped me identify places in my writing where I should slow down and linger, or hurry up and get to the point. She helped me move toward a way of writing that reached past imprecise renderings of feelings and instead attempted to weld experience and thoughtful interpretation together.
"When you carry us into and through, we come to you and are moved," she wrote on a cringeworthy essay I submitted. "Trust these images to tell the story."
I didn't yet trust the images, but I trusted her. For a while, that was enough.
"Omission," wrote playwright David Mamet, "is a form of creation."
Omission is a way of shaping, a way of whittling a piece of writing down to its most elemental form. The thing that's not said becomes the thing that rings the loudest, the echo emanating from a silent place. We see this in poetry and flash nonfiction, or in collage-form essays, where much is often left out. The writing hinges—at least in part—on the strengths of its images, on how much weight each one can bear. In collections of brief essays especially, where white space abounds, images become the rocks a reader jumps to while crossing from one section to the next, from one essay to the next. Each one needs to be tactile and stable so readers can take the leaps they need to.
The work an image can do is exceedingly apparent in Borich's most recent [End Page 218] book, Apocalypse, Darling, which is divided into five parts, each containing multiple brief essays. Each essay's title suggests the images that lie ahead, such as in "Wasteland Oasis," where we see "windowless steel mills, smoke spume, ground that appears as if the skin has been scraped away," and in "Visible Grace, Calumet...