My first book, Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes, won the Iowa Award for Short Fiction. My stories have appeared in many publications, including Best New American Voices, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Glimmer Train, and have been short-listed in Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. You can learn more about the book at www.merrillfeitell.com
I’ve assembled a mere smattering of clips here:
Map Inset: Kansas – A Video Essay
A woman, a dog, the open road, and the things we carry to the middle of nowhere
How Did We Get Here? Notes on Craft & Process
Once upon a bleak set of years, I did nothing but drive back and forth across the country. I had no job, no house, no partner, no plan, and, in the wake of various concurrent losses, I no longer had faith in my own desires.
On one of these junkets, I pulled over at a roadside rest stop in Kansas. The landscape reminded me of Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World, and so I tied the dog to a picnic bench, set up a timer shot, and somehow spent hours trying to reenact the painting. At some point later on, I tweaked the color on a single shot, posted it to Facebook, and promptly forgot that this particularly lonesome day (and its attendant series of photos) had ever happened.
When I first sat down to write about these dog days of roaming, I went poking around an old back-up drive and discovered the forsaken photos I’d taken that day.
The images are poorly lit and lackluster, and they certainly don’t get into the logistical grit of the drama going on in my life at the time, but, true to the old creative-writing adage show-don’t-tell, the photos manage to conjure the emotional truth of the story without explicitly stating a thing.
The isolation is clear in the landscape. The repeated attempts to get the perfect shot reveal a mounting desperation. The light changes; the sun fades. The sheer number of shots belies the fact that I had nowhere to go and no burning desire to get anywhere.
I wrote a brief essay-ish sort of piece, almost as if captioning a contact sheet, but it was difficult to read on a small screen, so I tried to find a form that would function in service of both image and text.
Video essay? Slideshow narrative? Lyric filmstrip? I’m not sure what to call it, but even with the rudimentary skills I was able to work up in the crash course of a 14-day software trial, as is often the case with revision, this exercise in form furthered my own understanding of the story at hand.
Some shots were taken in such rapid succession that by setting them in video sequence, it’s almost as if I’m reset in motion. This animated humanity and my voice on the audio track, bring to the project an intimacy that I find both strange and pleasing. This pit stop in Kansas marks what I can only hope is the loneliest I’ll ever be; the dog was the only one to hear my voice not just for those hours in the field, but for days. By offering a belated chance to both speak and move, the multi-media form seems to do more than just capture the experience I had with the dog the day we got stuck in that field; it somehow seems to release us from it.
“This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie
I just spent 11 days driving across country with my 81-year-old mother. She grew up in the Bronx and has spent her whole life in New York City, squelching her more artistic desires to cater to our family—but, for a brief time in the early ’60s, she considered herself a folkie.
With my dad recently dead and without any offspring to offer as distraction, it seemed that the best thing I could do was drive my mom around the entire country instead. I had my iPod on shuffle and one of the first questions she asked me was what I liked about dissonance. I couldn’t answer very well, so I referred her to Matt Hart’s amazing essay on Noise and I downloaded the 24 episode Smithsonian Folkways Collection (free on iTunes U).
I had not actually listened to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” since nursery school, but for eleven days, we listened again and again. Forget the rockets’ red glare; forget Donald Trump’s presidential bid; forget, for a moment, everything fucked about our country and all the ways we’re forced to live on the fringes of it. As we went driving that ribbon of highway there was nothing so real, plain, and true as Guthrie’s anthem to all the small, beautiful creatures moving—just momentarily—through an astonishing vastness that’s also ever in motion.
Merrill Feitell‘s first book, Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes, won the Iowa Prize for Short Fiction. She is Fiction Editor for Forklift, Ohio and lives in southern California, where she is currently at work on a novel and a series of essays about driving x-country with her dog. Visit www.merrillfeitell.com for more info.
“I Dream of Jeans” The New York Sun, DateTK
“Dim Sum Day” The New York Sun Magazine
PROFILE: Acclaimed Writer, Antonya Nelson, Ploughshares, Date TK