Using footnotes per Ryan Ruff Smith.

In “New Neighbors,” a creative nonfiction published in Subtropics, Ryan Ruff Smith uses footnotes to enrich the authorial perspective speaking from within a relationship.

Here’s footnote 4, for example:

4. David, the editor of Subtropics, suggested that perhaps I am being a bit too hard on myself here, in a way that is symptomatic of the very tendency to be hard on myself that I diagnosed earlier, and kindly suggested that I cut the words “from a blinkered perspective.” This was a shrewd suggestion, and I’ve retained the phrase only for the purposes of this footnote.

And footnote 5 undercuts the veracity of the narrative itself:

5. This business of the night terrors is the one detail I’ve made up. So perhaps it’s not so much that I wasn’t allowed a villain as that I couldn’t abide one. Where no explanation exists, you’re sometimes
obliged to invent one, and this rings true enough for me.

David Leavitt asks him why he decided to use footnotes in this way. I’m going to quote Ryan’s response in full just to give a sense of how an improvisational tactic winds up playing an interesting and provocative role in an essay:

Is it innovative? At any rate, I had fun with them. The first one I put in was based on a comment RL made on an early draft of the manuscript, responding to my assertion that we were both very particular (that is, fussy) by suggesting that perhaps one of us was more particular than the other. It seemed to capture something of our relationship—our shared sense of humor, the nature of our repartee—that I hadn’t been able to capture through dialogue, so I wanted to put that in there. I wasn’t sure footnotes were right for the piece, and I thought that I would probably cut them later, as soon as someone told me it was a dumb idea, but as I started adding more, I realized that it was a way of highlighting one of the things the essay was about—the idea of constructing narratives, of the truth as something that needs to be edited, revised, and qualified in order to get right. Now that I think of it, the sense of self that I come to terms with in the essay, and that I’ve been trying to describe here, is itself defined, in part, by being open to revision.

The way in which the footnotes challenge the authority of the narrator only makes the narrator more reliable to me. I footnote so many of my thoughts and assertions…and I appreciate the way Smith uses this as a device to acknowledge multiple leavings of meaning in service of truth in the essay.

Allan Gurganus thinks fiction writers NEED to take things personally.

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I change my mind about what a short story is nearly every day. So, then: a short story is that junkyard magnet. The form itself attracts. All the pieces of a short story — characters and lines of dialogue, events and images, setting, wild ideas — have been forged separately. Now they’re here, clinging to the one thing they have in common. In the junkyard itself, they mean nothing, a jumble. They are refuse. But once the magnet passes over they jump up and hang together, hub cap to hub cap to old pipe to wrenched-off refrigerator door. You see how they fit together, how they make a shape different from any other collection of scraps. Some of them don’t even touch the magnet: the current runs through the whole assemblage and holds it together. That story your parents always told about the early days of their marriage; the insult that ruined one of your oldest friendships; the morning news of 1962; other people’s writing; your worst memory of fourth grade. Turn on a magnet and watch them fly together. Today, anyhow, that’s what I think.
— Elizabeth McCracken, "I’m an Award-Winning Short Story Writer and I Don’t Know What I’m Doing Either"

Elizabeth McCracken helped me through the writing doldrums today with her essay, “I’m an Award-Winning Short Story Writer and I Don’t Know What I’m Doing Either”, in Electric Literature. Of course you should read it. Why else would I leave a link?

Apart from her prompts and reassurances, McCracken also linked to a wonderful craft essay by Allan Gurganus that covers the gamut from community gardens to historical complicity as well as the AIDS crisis. I sat outside my daughter’s ballet class laughing, holding my notebook close to my chest, that stupid smile of relief patched over my not-here-to-mom-chat face.

Published in a 1989 issue of Iowa Review, while Gurganus was taking a year off from teaching to write, ’ “Garden Sermon” (properly titled, “Garden Sermon: Being the History of a History, Notes from a Journal about How to Keep a Long Long Project Alive. Or: What I Did with My Summer Vacation”) is beautiful and encouraging. Of course you should read it. Why else would I leave a link?

A few excerpts:

“What starts a romance is rarely what sustains a marriage. My novel is called Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. I consider my relation to the oldest living confederate widow my life's longest monogamous connection. What starts a young writer is not what keeps a geezer coming back for more. You begin with the sound of one voice that goes forward into nowhere and, after years and trials enough, begins to come back with an echo, dividend.”

“We are often urged not to take things personally. A sales clerk yells at me and, shaken up by it, I tell a friend and my friend says back, "My God, you take everything so personally.” Maybe that belongs on the artist’s coat of arms. The agreement is: when you cease to take the world personally, you relinquish your credentials and your moral hold and your subject matter, and it's then that they issue you a gold card and they tell you that life is hard but that you should relax and then they send you on your way and you are utterly utterly lost—but it's okay because hey it's nothing personal. Just your life.

I want to keep it personal. I want the horrors of the daily New York Times to shake me up. This year, let's make a vow to each other—let's promise to take every thing personally. Let's help each other not be numb. "Deliver us from evil and lead us not into numbness." When I stop feeling embarrassment and rage, please take me out into the garden and bury me where Spot, and Muffy and the hundred family goldfish rest under crossed sticks. “

Held in reserve: Visiting the vets, c. 2011.

In my hometown, the less there is to discuss, the more impassioned the discussions. This is true at gas stations, in school parking lots, in hair salons, in every place where people huddle and clot except the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.

At the V.A. Hospital, words are held in reserve, marshaled for unknown future action.

We visit the vets to honor them. We pronounce each name aloud as if part of a liturgy.  We sing songs, play piano pieces, and attend to geographic details in their personal histories.  We intend to offer hope, although the vessel which bears hope is usually nothing more gilded than a story, a vignette from outside the handsome red colonial brick walls.


When we arrive, the administrator’s smile chloroforms us.

“There will be two separate holiday performances for two separate groups of vets,” she drones.  

I try to speak, joke— I didn’t realize the demand for carols was so high.

“No, it’s not a logistical issue.” The administrator assures me they have all the space they need. The bad joke rolls like a penny across the glossed floor.

The caroling needs to be divided because the recent vets refuse to share a room with the Vietnam and Korea vets. That is all she can tell me. Words are held in reserve, held back like reserve troops, not wasted on minor explanations. I imagine a massive aluminum tank bubbling with abandoned verbs, the gradual condensation of past tense.


Since our visit is divided according to wars, I begin to mark off each carol as a particular battle. Each song one breath closer to victory. There are no losses in our vocal battles because we have nothing to lose whereas they have already lost the things they hoped not to lose. Independence sounds abstract but aches like a concrete pillar pinning a foot in place.

My son performs a piece he composed especially for the vets. The piece is named “V.A. Vets’ Carol”.

A ward asks if he can’t play “Carol of the Bells” instead, since most vets prefer familiar, popular tunes to personal ones. There is so little we can offer these men and women that does not feel intrusive or privileged.

Be polite, I remind the kids between carols.

It is unclear whether I am referring to the sudden jumping jacks or the burgeoning impulse, the ongoing spontaneous impoliteness, that burning flame of childhood that runs and bumps and jumps and finds occasional release in a string of why why why whys. I worry their actions might be misinterpreted.

Neuroscience studies have shown social anxiety to be an entombment within first person— an inability to adequately hear or see other human beings. Jokingly, a researcher said the cure for this anxiety-induced lack of empathy might be as simple as good manners. The researcher was kidding but the truth isn’t funny.

The truth is a web of over-taut nerves which threaten to snap. I fear that my words will cause harm; that my nouns will turn against me; that my children will sell me to the hospital administrators. Selling information, after all, is as natural to them as withholding has become to me.

I don’t remember being innocent enough that my words caused unintentional hurt. My empathy deficit widens to include my children alongside the silent, smiling veterans.


Thank you for….—and I’m not sure how to finish after making eye contact and realizing the man cannot see me. He is blind. I am a voice drifting through the room to thank him for his service and this phrase suddenly feels vulgar and ominous. I am a conventional arrangement of meaningless platitudes floating past. I am a hallucination. Mostly, I am so very very sorry.

Ten feet away, my son chatters about heirloom seeds with an elderly female in a wheelchair, her silver hair bobbed into a sleek helmet. She is beautiful. She is resilient tomato stalks pummeled by southern rain. She is still standing— despite the wheelchair.

The heart stutters, bats its wings against a closed window, when I overhear the words protest and pacifist coming from Max’s lips.

It is over. The moment has arrived. I will be unmasked as the traitor who carried cardboard signs with the words Not In My Name painted in black tempera. Every eye in the room will turn to erase me.

A nurse will speak firmly when she asks me to leave.

The firmness in her voice will be thick and unyielding as a druid oak root.

Veterans will rise from their chairs and raise their fists in anger and fury.

I shoo the hummingbird in my heart away, tell it to settle down. Slurp soda water. But the drum in my head leaves me deaf.

The vet who resembles Ursula K. LeGuin motions to me, “Come here”. Here it comes. Finally. My son flaps his hands and continues speaking.

I smile, my name is Alina.

The surface of the heart is silent but the not in my name by now marches to its own underground drumbeat. As it always has. As it will continue.

“Your son says you’ve had a rough year,” she says hoarsely, a soft grin easing the corner of her lips upwards, a genuine expression of a school teacher’s retired sympathy. She is not what I expected. A fellow-veteran of American female-ness. A rebel, I imagine, to have served in the military so long ago—back before females were officially acknowledged.

“WWII,” she explains. “I was telling your son about flying old aircraft. He said you were a feminist.”

Did she use the f-word? What is familiar for us— a word still forbidden.

She isn’t going to confront me. Her name is Margot. She’s happy to make my acquaintance. She believes we have something in common.

I don’t know if she got the whole story.

“I told her about your tinnitus, mom.” Max leans against my arm, confident, the ghost of Howard Zinn between us.

Margot nods, her squint resembling the fruit in a bowl of cereal. “I’ve had tinnitus since my thirties. Other mothers didn’t understand. It made me feel lonely. And different.”

Does it ever go away? I want to pretend I didn’t ask. To erase my silly question and the silly flower-skirted face of me.

Margot shakes her head. “Tinnitus lasts longer than most marriages these days. It’s a very faithful friend.”

We have tinnitus in common. But the other mothers could never understand—they weren’t vets were they?

Mar-got. I tender her name like a tiny mollusk still attached at the center, a fragile mystery I can’t bear to break.

“They weren’t vets…” That smile again. Only now do I notice her hand trembling. The expression on her face, nonplussed, says they’d been trembling all along.

“Are you a vet?” She asks in earnest. Her face is a tapestry, a splendid map, and I am only just now beginning to read it.

“No, I’m not a veteran. I’ve never experienced war. Or combat.” I fight so many colors of shame.

Margot’s face lights up. “Oh, you’re a veteran, alright. Your son says you homeschool. And that you have tinnitus. And that you’ve brought that kids with you. To protests.”

The moment has arrived— brighter, more blinding than I could have imagined.

My son had told Margot about my involvement in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. About the protests against war. And Margot is still smiling without a hint of anything hidden below the surface. Looking at me as if she’s not afraid to read the whole story.

Her eyes honor me.

The honor of her eyes is relentless.

She honors me with her eyes until the word changes colors and honor becomes a word that has everything to do with seeing one another outside our social anxieties and comfortable scripts. On this trembling, quake-prone ground, a child’s earnest impulse is the true one. Looking back, I can’t see anything else.

10 writing inspirations in case thanksgiving dulls your pen.

  1. Jean Luc Godard’s film, Masculin Feminin (see trailer above)

  2. The song, “Visions of Johanna,” by Bob Dylan on repeat.

  3. A sexual superstition you’ve heard or experienced (i.e. women can’t get pregnant if they’re on top). And why. And all the rest.

  4. That time you did or did not try Ecstasy.

  5. A moment in which you felt a slight gap between yourself and the world.

  6. Rilke’s belief “in the possibility of love in a climate of death.” And how that looks.

  7. The fact that Karl Marx’s favorite virtue in women was weakness while his favorite virtue in men was strength. Using this as the basis for a dialogue between Marx and Jenny von Westphalen, his wife.

  8. That moment when Jenny Laura Marx and Paul Lafargue committed suicide together.

  9. Something in response to Nelly Sach’s one line poem: “But silence is where the victims dwell.” 

  10. A poem or story for which the secret, unrevealed epigraph might be Sigmund Freud’s 1915 statement: "Our own death is indeed, unimaginable, and whenever we make the attempt to imagine it we can perceive that we really survive as spectators."

Reading a poem from the new manuscript.

Grateful to my middles grill for taking this fancy video… and to Art Town in Birmingham for providing a space for readings and art.

P.S. I am SO HUNGRY to read and share these poems. Please email me at if you’re looking for readers and strange Romanian-Alabamians for your event or attic.