logo

Newest Brief Essays

"Women's Hour, YMCA" featured in Kenyon Review Online

"I Second That Emotion" (craft essay) featured in New Ohio Review

Essays

Other Brief Essays

"Advanced Directive to My Future Roommate…"

"Things Gone the Way of Time," recently reprinted in Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (Norton)

Essays

Study with Rebecca this summer

Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, June 18-25
APPLY NOW

Kenyon

Kenyon Review PODCAST with Rebecca

(on memoir, genre-crossing, writing practice, and more)

Podcast

Word Painting Revised Edition: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively

New edition includes over 100 writing exercises for all genres.

Word Painting

The Tribal Knot

Rebecca'a newest nonfiction book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change is now available from Indiana University Press and Amazon.

Tribal Knot

A Review of The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings

excerpted from" By Association" by Judith Kitchen, Water-Stone (Hamline Literary Review)


Rebecca McClanahan's The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings announces in its very title that these are fragments of a life. One of six children in a military family, McClanahan snatches at memory not so much to make sense of her present life as to piece together the incomplete quilt of family. Not only does she focus, in turns, on the multiple places she has lived, her parents' enduring love for each other, and the security and permanence of her grandparents' farm, she writes also of the passel of uncles and aunts, siblings and cousins, that make up an extended family. Against the backdrop of large men who never, even once, hurt a small girl, and women who always, every time, could be counted on in an emergency, McClanahan is able to frame a set of personal values and to examine her individual goals.

The "essays" in this book are discrete. That is, each has its own focus. So the family members are called up as needed, appearing out of sequence. After all, the story is not the story of the family, but the story of memory itself. Still, even memories have a way of circling until they have circumscribed significance. The title piece recalls the author participating in her younger sister Lana's pregnancy and the birth of her second child. When Lana has sudden complications, McClanahan is thrust into the role of surrogate parent. Now her mother makes the suggestion that she hasn't faced:

"There are two babies here. I've got my dad to take care of."
"School doesn't start for another month."
"Two babies. Claudia's got her hands full. Jennifer too."
"I might be able to take a leave of absence, a couple of months even."

The rocker stops. Mother closes her eyes, pulls the papoose to her breast. Her voice is a thin fabric wrung out to dry. "I'm talking about the rest of your life." In the kitchen the ice maker purrs, pauses, clanks into a new rhythm. The cubes drop into their preordained places.

The reader already has seen a younger version of McClanahan resisting her great-aunt Bessie, who came to help when her mother experienced complications after the birth of Lana. What is preordained is Bessie s example: service in the name of family. But Lana eventually recovers and McClanahan is given her own life to lead.

The life she has chosen is almost deliberately childless - and that decision is, perhaps, at the center of these essays. A long time ago, in a first, disastrous marriage, there was a miscarriage. That baby - conceived for all the wrong reasons - haunts the book with an alternative life, creating tensions between that life and the one she has chosen to live. As McClanahan sifts through the past, she is making room for the decision to throw off stability so that she and her husband can go, jobless, to a tiny apartment in New York City. She is pulling up these roots in order to make a new home, just as her mother did so many times before her.

Yes, the family is rich in anecdote and McClanahan renders them in finely-wrought detail, but the book's interest lies in its willingness to trust that incomplete memory has its own story to tell, makes its own significance. McClanahan is willing to use her associative method to change direction, forcing the reader to experience a kind of systematic disconnect. "With my Father in Space-Time" may (precisely because of its title) use this technique in the most radical fashion:

... Helen Keller said she knew time was passing because she smelled the apples beginning to rot. My Father marks the Nows of his life by the cars he has owned. I've seen the list: There were thirty-two.

I was a high school senior and there was a boy named Mike. I believed I would do anything to be with him - even lie. What choice did I have? I was still a virgin, and I promised myself that I would not be for long.

If there is a connection between her father's cars and her own virginity, it resides in association, and association is individual. Readers would not make this leap if it were not forced on them. And yet, as the essay unfolds, things come together. The author's sessions talking to a physicist, her two-month absence from her husband, her father's stories of the Great Depression, even a meal in a favorite restaurant, Carpe Diem, coalesce as though by design:

... "I loved all my children, did you know that? They say I was distant. It was the only way I knew to keep from breaking." I look across the table and tell him it's okay, I don't remember it, it's all in the past, and yes, I always knew" he loved me. My lather proposes a toast to us all, and Infinity, that perfect Figure eight, loops around us, knotting the past and the future into one imperfect Now, even as we lift our glasses.

There is no blueprint for insight or understanding. There is only the working around — and under and over and through — until, possibly, a pattern emerges. By trusting her own connections, by allowing herself to leap full-tilt into her next thought, Rebecca McClanahan has discovered the answers to some of her own riddles, and the reader, by association, sees the individual squares in the quilt combine in a strikingly intuitive pattern.

The Van Angels
More Reviews
  • “... opens the door to an important use of memoir as a genre... McClanahan has found a way to make the personal a language for a greater concern." -- Bonnie Blader, Calyx
    READ ENTIRE REVIEW