Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

Visiting with Jessamine Price

by Jericho Parms

What inspired “Our New York, Too, Will Disappear”?

This essay actually started out as an assignment for a creative nonfiction class. When the professor asked for a careful analysis of an essay of our choice, I pretty quickly thought of Ozick’s piece. I couldn’t remember it well, but I remembered the impact it had on me when I first read it in late 2001. As I started writing, I challenged myself to try to keep as much energy in my analysis as Ozick has in her essay. I think it’s possible for writing to be analytical and still be emotional and personal.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this piece.

Until a couple years ago I was a high school teacher, and before that I was in a Ph.D. program for years, so for a long time my creative writing process has been haphazard—a few minutes here and there. I love starting on new projects, so until I started an MFA program, I never finished the pieces I started. Somewhere in a closet I have an unfinished screenplay, half a novel written longhand, and dozens of stories, essays and poems that just lost my attention.

Now that I’m pushing myself to finish the pieces I start, I find the hardest part is convincing myself to begin revising. First drafts look so pathetic that it’s hard to have faith they’ll look better with revision. To keep going, I have on my desk an image of the poster for the documentary “Man on Wire,” which shows the acrobat Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. It reminds me to keep moving forward—to focus on what the piece can be in the future—instead of looking down at how mediocre the piece is in the present.

Is there something you would love to write about but you can’t? Or something you did write about but you wish you hadn’t?

Hmm, can’t or won’t? As I work on memoir essays, I sometimes run into the limits of the truth—its geographical limits. I’ve lived in Yemen and Cairo, and I’m cautious when I write anything set there. I don’t want to cause trouble for my friends there—Muslim countries, even ones with secular governments, are sort of like small Southern towns. The neighbors are always paying attention and everyone’s in everyone else’s business. As much as I might want to tell a particular story, I do think about whether it’s something the neighbors know already or not, and ask myself, what would they think? Unfortunately, this means I do have a couple stories I’d love to write, but will probably keep under my hat for the time being.

This essay engages directly with the work of Cynthia Ozick. What other books or writers have had impact on your writing?

I have a feeling everything we read comes out in our writing one way or another. But I realized I wanted to write essays when I was 22 and I came across the 1995 Best American series and Thomas Frank’s fiery journal the Baffler. For a year I read every essay I could find. I love Ozick, Adam Gopnik, Annie Dillard, Donald Hall. The memoirists I admire most are perhaps Lucy Grealy and Alexandra Fuller.

One thing I love about essays is that each one is a window into another person’s way of thinking, so I almost prefer reading authors who are new to me—it’s like visiting a new country. As I wrote “Our New York, Too, Will Disappear,” I remembered an essay by Franklin Burroughs, “Compression Wood,” which includes a detailed reading of Gerard Manley-Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty”—after seeing the poem through Burroughs’ eyes, I went from thinking of it as just another literature textbook poem to finding it beautiful and fascinating. I haven’t yet read other essays by Burroughs, but that one made a big impression. A good essay can change your experience of the world.

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