Date of Graduation
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
Mary Ann Samyn
I made "Notes on the History of the Mountains" the title piece in this collection because it is the kind of essay I've been trying to write ever since my first graduate nonfiction workshop in 2011. That semester, I read W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn for the first time. The dream-like, detached quality of the narration in that book and the complex interconnectedness of its structure left an indelible imprint on my writing. Several of my essays contain imitative elements that betray a desire to become the Sebald of Central Appalachia, to mine the past of my own region the way Sebald plunged readers into a rabbit hole of interlocking European histories in Rings of Saturn.;But in discussing my work, I can't omit the gap in time between some essays in this collection and others. I wrote "Notes" more than three years after finishing my last graduate workshop. Over those three years, I worked as a print journalist but barely touched my literary nonfiction. I think the routine of writing for a daily newspaper strengthened aspects of craft that I had left underdeveloped. I picked up some process-related habits that influenced how I approached "Notes," particularly in the gathering phase. I realized while fleshing out the thematic components of the piece -- which is more research-oriented than others in this collection -- that I had come to Morgantown thinking like a writer but lacking some basic competencies. I hadn't learned writing as habit. Every word put to page became too special, too personal. I needed more distance.;Two years in print journalism helped me to regularly contextualize my prose, to rapidly snuff out indulgent tendencies -- probably something I should have done earlier but didn't. More importantly, the experience of writing about Clarksburg has fundamentally influenced how I see my literary nonfiction in ethical terms. Depicting the town -- as an outsider -- to its residents communicated an immediate sense of the weight of narrative representation. I often had to learn and write about subjects with which my readers were already very familiar. A slight misrepresentation, an overstatement, would mean an angry call from someone directly impacted by my words, by the connotations of my phrasing. In this environment, it quickly became clear how much I had discounted my responsibility to get it right as a writer of nonfiction. I realized that getting it right -- being precise in acquiring and conveying fact -- is difficult, that it takes work and sometimes means discomfort and discombobulation, that sometimes your conceptualizations are just wrong and you have to rework them. It's not that I ever intentionally fictionalized without disclosing as much to the reader, although I certainly leaned too heavily on "I imagine that"-type scenes to make up for a lack of research. I realized that my mindset prior to working as a journalist was to find truths that fit my ideas rather than to develop ideas that reflected the fullest sense of the truth as I knew it. My process centered around gathering and molding material to flesh out the world of an essay as I wanted to depict it -- for stylistic reasons -- while overlooking or sidestepping inconvenient complexities that might have provided a less aesthetically consistent impression. I think large chunks of my early work fail structurally the way a shorty story with transparent narrative conceits fails to impress an experienced reader.;Circling back to "Notes," during the writing process I conceptualized the piece as a kind of experimental journalism. This mindset -- a more nuanced grappling with the weight of fact -- gave rise to the essay's underlying meditation on the collective work of cultivating narratives and my role as chronicler. The emphasis on striking a more detached tone seemed to charge the essay with a useful tension. As I wrote, a push toward objectivity created a suppressive force. The essay's lyric impulses pushed back, bubbling to the surface in passages that are more limited, more condensed than in earlier work.;Here the persona finally places himself within the slippery and shifting conceptualizations of time evoked by the discussions of Clarksburg's history and the geology of the Marcellus Shale. The pattern of disclosure compresses the lyric declaration within narratives that extend far beyond the personal and yet are inherently interior.;I think "Notes" most fully articulates a tendency that has characterized much of my nonfiction work -- a suppression of personal disclosure, with the concerns of the narrator couched in oblique or digressive explorations of family and regional histories. Whether it succeeds on all levels, whether some of the structural risks pay off or simply serve to confuse readers, I don't know. But "Notes" is the essay I wanted to write, and after three years, it felt good to write it. (Abstract shortened by ProQuest.).
Shelor, Jeremiah, "Notes on the History of the Mountains" (2016). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 6626.