"Those Mere Mentions of Memory": An Interview with Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Paris Review Daily, Passages North, The Normal School, Slice Magazine and has been listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2014, 2015, and 2016. She teaches in the creative writing program at University of North Texas.

Her essay, "Lonely Things—A Series," appeared in Issue Eighty-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, Jill Talbot talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about lyric essays, organizing lists, and thrumming chords.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay “Lonely Things—A Series”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Okay, so I’m going to embarrass myself and show you the original list I jotted down while sitting in that Chicago café in 2013.

Lonely things:   suitcases, postcards, the ghost-like outline of paintings that have been removed from walls, shadows in photographs, fill-in-the-blank lines, the last page, the sound of coins dropping into a newspaper stand, empty chairs on front porches, folded maps, words scribbled on napkins, a piece of paper from last season in a coat pocket, the ignored ring of a payphone, a lamp on a nightstand, a closed store, shirts hanging in a closet, a sign so distant you can’t make it out, a kitchen at night, train tracks. My brother’s baseball cap. 

I saved the document as Lonely Things, but I didn’t do anything with it. I’d open it now and again, thinking how the things might be a segment in a larger conversation about loneliness. Three years later, I decided that those lonely things didn’t have to do anything but just be a list, a catalog. Here’s an excerpt from the next phase:

Water towers, the hazy outline of paintings that have been removed from walls, shadows in photographs, the clinks of coins in a soda machine, creases in maps, added numbers on a napkin with a carried one, a movie stub from last winter in a coat pocket, shirts hanging in a closet, a row of newspaper stands, the final paragraph, empty downtown buildings, train tracks, Highway 84 to Lubbock, a kitchen in the middle of the night, the snap of a stop button on a mix tape, shoes in thrift stores, an Out of Service bus, a curtainless shower on moving day, school buses lined up before the bell rings, scotch tape on the edge of an envelope’s seal, a symphony conductor’s extended bow, a stranger’s arm out a car window giving the go around signal.

I submitted this version (288 words) to a journal, but the editors wanted “a specificity of an ‘I,’ even if ‘I’ is never used.” In other words, they wanted a voice connected to the things. So the next version employed 2nd person here and there, as in “the blue sweatshirt in your closet, the one you can’t bring yourself to wear.” Yet something felt uninteresting about the block paragraph, so one day I started stretching lines and phrases this way and that like Silly Putty, sifting and sorting until I had what I considered a hybrid flash, something between an essay and a poem. Another rejection from another journal mentioned the essay’s power came from the “(apparent) autobiography,” so in the next draft I added parentheticals “(flannel-sleeved shoulder)” to push that autobiographical impulse more. 

This essay is divided into six sections, the first of which is written in verse, while the rest take the form of prose. How did you decide that the piece should make this switch from a lyrical mode to a more narrative one?

I wish I could take credit for this, but a writer I’ve been exchanging drafts with for years suggested I create a collage, pairing the verse-version “with several other short lyric flash nonfictions to create a suite of impressions.” And that’s when I added the subsequent five sections of prose to create a lyric suite. I like to think of those five sections as a legend, the keys to some of the locations on the map of the first section.

There is a character in this essay, a “him,” who is mentioned a few times without ever being named, and the reader is left to make assumptions about the nature of his role in your life, having very few specific details to go on. How do you know how much information is too much or too little when you’re keeping a pivotal part of the essay like this person mostly out of view?

I like the idea of the “mere mention” of the lyric essay, how Deborah Tall and John D’Agata describe it: 

“Given its genre mingling, the lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically - its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. The stories it tells may be no more than metaphors. Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme. The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving.”

I’ve written two memoirs about “him,” and lately I’m more interested how the chords of his presence thrum in my work without being the melody. As years (fourteen) have passed since the morning I saw him getting on that elevator, my memories fragment, moments flash, so this form allows me to explore those mere mentions of memory.

Your essay’s first section contains so many images that resonated with me, one after another, many of them familiar and yet cast in a new light. I’m curious about how you compile a list of things on a theme. Do you seek them out, or do they come to you, or both? And once you have collected them, how do you arrange them? Do you have escalation in mind, or perhaps a more associative logic?

I remember writing the initial draft as a list, simply things or images that came to me, but as I continued and expanded the list and the form, I wanted associations or extensions, bridges between one and the other, and of course the sound of the thing was most important. And once I added those prose sections, I had to go in and add a couple of things to the first section, such as “the stillness of an empty swimming lane” and “a library elevator” for cohesion.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just finished a flash hybrid, a blend of nonfiction and fiction, and I’m intrigued by that tension, how I’m engaging with memory while embedding fiction (it’s another essay with “him,” as chord rather than melody), and I’d like to do more of those, because how can I say moments from all those years ago are now anything but a mélange of story and essay?

I’m finishing up a hybrid collaborative manuscript with Justin Lawrence Daugherty that we’ve been working on for four years.

And I’m also working on a memoir that weaves my daily morning visits to the 7-11 for a Diet Dr. Pepper with the eight years I (ab)used anti-depressants, something I’ve never written about before.  It’s a very unsettling project (because of the stories and people I encounter at 7-11 and my past), but I need that to write, I need to be unsettled.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I’m incredibly fascinated by the meta-memoir, and I recently read and admired Mark Slouka’s Nobody’s Son: A Memoir, published in October, and Joshua Mohr’s Sirens, which will be published by Two Dollar Radio in January.