Craft Talk by Julie Marie Wade

THE ADVENT CALENDAR AS HERMIT CRAB

I wrote “Advent” in autumn 2018 while revising the syllabus for my spring 2019 Graduate Lyric Essay Seminar, one of my all-time favorite classes to teach. Something I’ve committed to doing in all my classes is completing the assignments I design for my students as an act of literary solidarity as well as a kind of pedagogical test-piloting—what works, what doesn’t, and why. This is part of my I-will-never-ask-you-to-do-anything-that-I-wouldn’t-do-myself commitment to fellow writers, but I find the message most meaningful when I can attest that I’ve already done what I’m asking my students to do—that it’s possible, reasonable, and yes, of course, pleasurable, too.

 And writing “Advent” was all of these things for me.

The first lyric essay assignment I devised didn’t require my students to use a “hermit crab,” or adopted-forms approach, but I knew I was going to encourage them to try it, and here’s why: I had received an advanced copy of a terrific anthology edited by Kim Adrian, The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, with a foreword written by my own first professor of the lyric essay, Brenda Miller. As I was reading this assortment of contemporary “hermit crabs,” I was struck by how widely the idea of an adopted form had grown since my teachers Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola first introduced the concept in their craft book Tell It Slant back in 2002. I used to think of viable adoptable forms as dictionary entries and bibliographies, menus and recipes—where the form, or shell, looked exactly like the thing it was—where only the content had been subtly or subversively altered.

Now, nearly a generation later, the shells also seemed different—often more subtle than I was used to, and often more subversive as a result. This new cohort of hermit crab essays didn’t always announce themselves visually as the “hermit crabs” they were, so part of the experience of reading was discovering what it was that made the essay a hermit crab at all. Some standouts of subtlety and subversion among the essays included in The Shell Game are Kathryn A. Kopple’s “Rubik’s Cube, Six Twisted Paragraphs” and Karen Hays’s “The Clockwise Detorsion of Snails: A Love Essay in Sectors.” Reading them, I had a desire to adopt a less obvious shell than the out-of-office replies and annual self-evaluation forms I had been playing with at the time.

Though it was only early November, holiday advertising was in full swing, and I found myself thinking about the Advent calendars of my youth. Every year, just after Christmas, my mother stocked up on the discounted calendars, and the following year—reliably every December 1st—a shrink-wrapped calendar with a picture of Santa or some reindeer or Frosty the Snowman appeared in our kitchen for me to unwrap. There were 24 perforated squares to pop open, each with a waxy chocolate candy inside, and on the last day—the glorious 25th of December—a final perforated door gave way to an equally waxy chocolate candy.

It was an odd ritual that I hadn’t thought about in years. Was an Advent calendar an adoptable “shell”? What would it look like transcribed into text, given that its conventions were not word-based like other forms I had adopted in the past? I decided on 25 sections to represent the 25 doors. The last one would serve some kind of meta-function, something to distinguish it from the others, to mark it as a culmination of the season as well as the essay. I decided to name my doors, to give each section its own internal cohesion—a name instead of a perforation perhaps. I made names out of things I remembered about the holidays, many of them particular to my family’s rituals, names like “Candelabrum” and “Upstairs Tree” and “Santa Claus Breakfast.” To evince the compression and symmetry of those tiny Advent calendar doors, I decided each section should be identical in length and settled on 200 words—no more, no less. I think the effect is a kind of spring-loading of language that makes the sections “pop,” not unlike the way the doors popped open when I finished tracing the edges of each perforated square.

The segments of my essay look like squares. It’s clear they’re similar in shape and size, linked in terms of content. Maybe someone will read them as ornaments on a tree or popcorn kernels threaded on a string—some kind of Christmas garland. The shell isn’t obvious at the outset, even though the title offers a clue, and the final section, or door, provides some meta-commentary on the inciting event—what is both being written about and also instantiated here: “My father explains this tradition is religious, but my mother buys secular calendars in bulk on December 26th at the drugstore. Sometimes the chocolate is so old it turns white, but I still eat it. I’m hungry for some kind of design. If only the events of a day were the size of this door, I could make sense of everything.”

JULIE MARIE WADE is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2010), winner of the Colgate University Press Nonfiction Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Memoir; Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), selected for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series; Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), selected for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature; Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series; Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Books, 2013), selected by Bernard Cooper as the winner of the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize; When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), selected for the American Library Association’s Over the Rainbow List; Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016); SIX: Poems, selected by C.D. Wright as the winner of the AROHO/To the Lighthouse Prize in Poetry; Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2018); and The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose (Noctuary Press, 2019), co-authored with Denise DuhamelForthcoming in 2020 is her newest collection of lyric essays, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press), now available for pre-order!

About Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing:

You have a history, and a body. You are a history, and a body. Your body has (is) a history, too. As a girl, Julie Marie Wade was uninterested in makeup, boy-watching, and other trappings of conventional girlhood, much to her mother’s disappointment. Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe—movie stars immortalized as feminine ideals, even as they both died tragically and young—were lodestars that threw Wade’s own definition of beauty into relief as she stumbled into adulthood.

Now, in Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing, Wade traces the intimate story of coming of age in one particular body (as a lesbian, an only child, a Protestant attending Catholic school). She uses the language and tenets of music, math, religion, fairy tales, poetry, and art to reckon with the many facets of embodiment, sexuality, and love in our contemporary world. The diet industry, popular culture, and her own family all provide rich material for what is ultimately a lyrical and unflinching investigation into the questions that prickle deep within the human heart.