We hope you enjoy this interview between our 2012 Nonfiction Prize winner, Jessica Wilbanks, and the 2013 Nonfiction Prize winner, Craig Reinbold. The 2014 Nonfiction Prize has just opened – join these great writers & share your creative nonfiction with us!
Jessica Wilbanks: In his notes on your essay, “The Girl in the Photograph,” VanderMey Prize judge Brian Doyle says “What seems to be reporting of facts slides ever so deftly into being an essay about love and loss and grace and dignity and memory and how we live and how we are confusions and glories.” One of the things I enjoyed most about your essay is the fact that it pivots not around the story of Bernice Cosulich’s suicide–a story that’s fascinating in its own right–but rather her fervent desire that her writing be preserved after her death. When you began writing about Bernice, was the theme of remembrance immediately apparent, or did it develop more gradually?
Craig Reinbold: It’s always a trick identifying how exactly an essay comes together over time. I went into the University of Arizona’s Special Collections tasked with spinning out, basically, ad copy for “The Bernice Cosulich Papers,” and I wrote an initial 100-word blurb focusing on her career as a journalist and highlighting her worldly success. I covered the most rudimentary facts of her life: She wrote for this magazine and that. She won some awards. She corresponded with such and such. She wore horn-rimmed glasses. But at some point during my visit to her archive I also found her suicide note, and was obviously enrapt by the drama of it, by the thrill of stumbling across something so personal and portentous.
As an employee of the university, I had access not only to every archive in the collection, but also the photocopier, and I (sort of scandalously) made copies of everything interesting I came across, and kept it all tucked into a series of manila folders, slotted into a file box beside my desk. I also kept a scanned PDF of the photo of Bernice that appears at the end of this essay, and it’s probably with that photo that the theme of remembrance first emerged.
That photo is the heart of the essay. Ultimately, while the Bernice we read in the suicide note is interesting, I wanted the essay to homage the Bernice we see in the photo. After all, that photo is the piece of Bernice—or maybe the vision of Bernice—that I really fell in love with. In a sense the Bernice in the photo is every one of us when we were so young and radiant and with so much life and potential ahead of us. So there’s all of that synecdoche and metaphor that makes the essay meaningful, I think, but it’s also just about remembering this woman who would otherwise be lost to the file box. I suppose, more simply, I fell in love with the girl in that photograph and wanted to immortalize her anyway I could, and meanwhile Bernice’s larger story was resuscitated for a minute, and there are lessons in there for all of us, but really the essay is, simply, about remembering someone who was once among us and is no more. Ultimately, it’s the act of remembering—and the wanting to be remembered—that is the universal story here.
The suicide strikes with its immediacy, and provides an essential mystery (many of us love a good mystery, yeah?), but it’s the question of what we leave behind—and whether or not anyone will miss us, and whether they will value what we did with our life—that really haunts us. Facing death, most of us choose (and struggle through various states of desperation to hold on to) life, which, here, only means we carry this question with us longer. Will anyone remember us? Will anyone think of us when we’re gone? Maybe. Hopefully. Maybe not. Given enough time, certainly not. And the idea of death as oblivion, at least in terms of the physical world we inhabit, is rightly terrifying. In that sense, this essay is just an exercise in living, as we do, with so much inevitable loss. So pretty much from the get-go, this essay was an attempt to make sense of it all, to remember in a way that calms and assuages this particular existential angst.
JW: Juxtaposing your account of Bernice’s doubts with those of a far better known writer, Joan Didion, adds an additional layer of complexity to the essay. Like Bernice, Didion struggled with doubt, even as the choices she made enabled her to leave behind masterful work that will to be read and remembered for years to come. Can you talk a bit about how you came to weave these two women’s stories together?
CR: I read The Year of Magical Thinking over Christmas one year, and have never really stopped thinking about it. Typically, when I’m so captivated—by someone, or some fact, or by anything—the only way out of the obsession is to write about it. And so there I was, months later, working on this Cosulich essay, and I couldn’t sleep one night, so I hit the couch with a copy of Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Partway through the title track the connection between the two women’s larger life stories just fell on me. I scribbled out a page of notes and then immediately conked out. I woke up and of course what little chicken-scratch I could decipher made no sense, but the seed was there; I knew there was a connection between these two women, and I needed to flush it out. So I re-read The Year of Magical Thinking, noting every potential over-lap I found—and the Didion thread of the essay evolved from there.
Essays take serious time, like learning to walk on one’s hands—which is maybe a weird metaphor, but it took me years to learn to walk on my hands, and there were plenty of moments of What am I doing this for?!, but, you know, you see it through, and there it is. Didion saw it through, and I admit, at times, as selfish as this might be, I wish Bernice had, too. What would she be writing today? What would she be adding to our understanding of the world? Though there is also the inevitable irony: if she hadn’t killed herself so long ago, it’s likely I wouldn’t even know her name today.
JW: In the service of a unified narrative, writers often trim the loose ends from a narrative and leave fascinating facts or tangents on the cutting room floor. Was there anything that you uncovered in the process of researching or writing the essay that didn’t make it into the final draft?
CR: In the past, I’ve tended to write long, with first drafts often hitting the 40-page mark. It was then a tedious process of revision leading to a more readable, say, 25-page piece. There was a lot of cutting, a lot of painful trimming of material. “Kill all your darlings,” someone once said, and it seems this is the not-so-secret secret. My mother is a bit of a hoarder, and I grew up in a house brimming with old, accumulated knickknacks and photographs and rocking chairs and antique washing machines and all kinds of other such things, and I suspect this style of long-writing is more the result of an inherited personality trait than an actual artistic decision. In the last few years, I’ve become more adept at ridding myself of physical belongings that just take up space, and my relationship to revising has mysteriously changed similarly. I let go more easily. It’s a good thing, for an essayist, I think.
This particular essay shaped itself pretty much as it is during the first-draft process, though there was more than a year of thinking-about-it-all before I put down a word. I also originally imagined this essay rounding out at a thousand words—and I didn’t quite manage that.
It’s a trick, this essaying. I suppose I’m more naturally drawn to nonfiction, and to essays in particular, because I see value in telling those true-life stories that are so often swept away by circumstance—and they’re often remarkable enough there’s no need to fictionalize. I see value in digging these stories up, giving voice to the traditionally voiceless, and recording what they have to say for posterity. There is so much we can learn from these stories, not only about our cultural past, but our own lives. Stories like Bernice’s seem to me both timeless and universal, and my hope is that the resurrected story of this woman’s death half a century ago might teach us better way to live today. Such are the stories I’m interested in telling.
This piece gives such a portrait of Bernice, but it’s really only that, a moment in time captured by a second party with their own biases and objectives. Like the photograph of her that appears at the end of the essay. There is so much that is left out. There is so much more to be said, so many more angles to cover, so many more stories to tell. Born in 1896, Bernice was already 16 years old when Arizona became a state. She was a young divorcee, raising a daughter—one can only imagine what that was like in the early 20th century. She traveled around the southwest, conducting all kinds of research. She was a noted journalist at a time when women in the U.S. were only recently allowed to vote. There is so much one could say about Bernice Cosulich—one could write a book about her. But I suspect, upon reading such a book, we would only really remember the bits that mean the most to us anyway—as that is essentially all we ever remember, from books, or films, or conversations, or from any of the many experiences we have over the years. We carry with us memories that are essentially snapshots, like the one of Bernice in this essay, and I think this is okay. I’m unconvinced more is better. If our memory is necessarily selective, I’d rather hone what I remember than try to remember too much. I’d rather carry this particular photo around with me than try to lug every scrapbook Bernice ever put together—because this photo really means something to me.
We can’t capture a life in words, I don’t think, though admittedly many biographies try. I do think we can try to articulate what a particular moment in a life means to us, and hopefully make that moment meaningful to others. That is maybe all we can do, and we can only do this by paring down the story to its essence. And so much is lost along the way—all those darlings—but such is the way of the things. Our memories, too, are imperfect, and so much of our lives are lost to this neural fog. So it goes. But hopefully we can hang on to those small moments that really matter.