Editor's Notes 21.1

By Joe Mackall

January 31, 2020

Editor's Notes 21.1

The other day I had occasion to drive through a town named Red Haw, just a few miles from my home in rural Ohio. I live in a small community, but it’s a booming metropolis compared to Red Haw, a town of Trump re-election signs, a smattering of houses, a few barns, and a Methodist church. Red Haw is an easy place to ignore, and it’s an even easier place to think you know. When I drive through a tiny town during the day in rural America, I’m quickto characterize the town by what I think I see there. The Methodist church tells part of the story; Trump signs tell the rest. But when I drive through Red Haw at night, my cheap and condescending characterizations fall away. At night I see yellow light splashed on the lawns. These splashes of light remind me that as a writerhell, as a human beingI cannot afford to believe I know a place or its people by campaign signs or churches. The yellow light illuminating parts of dark lawns and porches remind me that the people in those houses are more than demographic data. They’re actual flesh-and-blood human beings as unique as I believe myself to be. For the last three years, I’ve had to remind myself of this over and over again. I’m not proud of it.

My eighty-eight-year-old father and I drove through Red Haw the other day. We made the usual jokes. Who the hell even names a town Red Haw? Was there an actual man whose first name was Red and whose surname was Haw? That’s a guy I would have loved to party with in my more reckless days. By the time we’d finished making our quips, the town and its people were behind us. My dad himself could serve as evidence of my splash-of-light theory. During the day I see my dad’s house as the place an elderly man lives after a long and interesting life—life as a father, husband, yellow-dog Democrat, sailor, former Cleveland homicide detective. But approaching his house at dusk or dark tells more of the story. That’s when I see the yellow light from inside splashed on his front lawn. It’s a lonely light I behold then. That’s when it hits me hard that he lives alone, a man who has been happily married twice, a man who has had to bury two wives he loved. No writer can afford to see only the daylight. No American—especially not in 2019—ought to accept the easy half-truths daylight delivers.

At the same time that I was struggling to remind myself not to judge my fellow Americans by their political beliefs, my co-editor Dan Lehman and I were choosing the pieces for our book celebrating and commemorating the first twenty years of River Teeth. It was an excruciatingly difficult task. How would we ever choose the pieces that would represent some of the best work of the last twenty years? Our first draft of the collection contained nearly sixty works and came in at a ridiculous (yet sensible to us) 289,000 words. Because we publish only what we love, and when we love something we’ll go to the ends for it, we wanted to include so much more in River Teeth: Twenty Years of Creative Nonfiction, which will be published in February by the University of New Mexico Press. So many of the essays, memoir, and literary journalism we’ve published over the last two decades could not fit into the final version. We said no to so much we loved. In the end, we got the book down to 110,000 words, and I believe they are words to live by.

I needed to read once again about Sam Pickering and his aging dog, and about Ted Kooser’s former house where a murder occurred. I loved renewing myself with the girls in Angela Morales’s town, and with a gun in a song made famous by the father of Sarah Curtis. Judith Kitchen, in “Breath,” her last published piece before she passed, reminded me again of what will be left behind once we too are gone. What struck me over and over again when reading the final proofs of our book was how many individual lives get illuminated in pieces of the best creative nonfiction.

For us River Teeth has always been about the writing, of course, but we never imagined how many truly good people would come into our lives because the two of us happened to start a journal, almost on a whim, in 1999. It does seem that we’re living in a different time than when we started out. We were still pre-9/11, before Iraq and Afghanistan, before family separations at our southern border, before the 2016 election. But much, of course, has not changed. We still love and laugh and weep and work and rear our children and become grandparents and bid goodbye to people we love. And we still need to tell our stories. Without stories it can feel as if we have nothing, as if everything is out of reach. With our stories, all of our stories, something else happens, some alchemy of experience and meaning-making that renders us somehow more than we are. To paraphrase our friend Cheryl Strayed, after reading the best stories we ought to then believe “that nothing will ever be the same again.” Acts of creation transform us; we’re made anew. If this sounds a touch grandiose, we’ll ask your forbearance. That’s just how we feel about the power of literature. We always have.

When we’re worried about our passion for the written word perhaps embarrassing us or our readers, we often cite a couple of sentences from Tim O’Brien’s “The Lives of the Dead” from The Things They Carried: “And this too is true. Stories can save us.” Or as Leslie Marmon Silko writes about the enormity of stories in her novel Ceremony: “They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death. You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories.”

All the stories, even those hiding in the rural homes of Red Haw.

Thanks for reading.

JM

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