Exploring the art of prose


The Pythagorean Theorem: Three Micros by Beth Gilstrap

alt text: image is a black-and-white photograph of a board with mathematical equations; title card for Beth Gistrap's creative nonfiction piece "The Pythagorean Theorem: Three Micros"

Vivid, brief, stunning, Beth Gilstrap’s three nonfiction micros are at once physical and metaphysical, based in sensory experience while encompassing far more. In “The Pythagorean Theorem,” the narrator and her grandmother share sliced cucumbers in the garden (“she salts, crunches. I salt, crunch”), while her grandmother tells a story about the narrator’s mother, whom she yearns to know. “My body is a thing that exists,” the anxious narrator in “Every Mass Attracts Every Other Mass in the Universe” reminds herself. Grief-stricken over her grandmother’s death, she sees “a mote of firebreath tulips whirring past the car window,” registers the “tightness” in her chest, and “self-soothes” by rubbing her short haircut. The narrative point of view in “News Along the Ohio River, I-III” verges on omniscient, as the narrator enters the physical consciousness of others: a woman removes her gloves to touch ice crystals on the rusted iron railing, a bundled-up man blows on an incense stick, another opens a can of chicken livers, and the stink of it opens a door to the narrator’s memories of her grandfather. (See Gilstrap’s author’s note on the significance of the Ohio River sequence, which she has since extended.)

Ross Gay calls them “essayettes.” Beth Ann Fennelly calls them “micro-memoirs” and compares them to hummingbirds. “If there are things a hummingbird can do precisely because it’s small, what about a piece of writing? What topics, styles, and tones does a micro-memoir…invite? How could it, too, be fast, smart, kinetic, dexterous, and efficient?” Death, grief, anxiety, physics, astronomy, memory, the nature of time, the limits of knowing—Gilstrap treats enormous themes with remarkable economy and dexterity, her language and imagery always grounded in this world and bodily sensations.  —CRAFT


The Pythagorean Theorem

In a photo of her when she was eight months pregnant with me, my mother looks up at the camera. High sun. Her sweaty hair clinging to her jawline. A powder blue top swinging in the breeze. Though I lived with her until I was eighteen, I do not know my mother well. I only know what I have witnessed myself or the stories her mother told. We might have been alone together five times in fifteen years.

But, in the years between my pop’s death and her own, my grandmother and I spend time. Over sliced cucumbers from the garden, between pinches of salt on each bite, she says, “Honey, let me tell you—your mother was something. How ’bout she drove your daddy’s—I mean your pop’s— car clear through the back of the carport.” She gestures at the structure my grandpa built out of repurposed telephone poles and cinder blocks, repainted stark white and grass green every spring.

She salts, crunches. I salt, crunch.

“He’d just finished the durn thing and sure enough, she hit the gas instead of the brake and he likened to come out his chair, but she flew out all upset and screaming and he couldn’t do nothing but laugh. Poor thing was so embarrassed.”

I yearned to hear what my mother was like before me, when her auburn hair was ironed straight and perfect.

In a photo of her when she was eight months pregnant with me, my mother looks up at the camera. Perhaps at my father. Perhaps he’s sober. Perhaps he does not hit her that day. Perhaps she loves the new Polaroid. Her hands are on her hips toward her lower back, but they are not at rest. She pushes fists into muscles tender from the weight of me. She smiles close-lipped and squinting. Behind her, a picnic table full of three-year-olds wild and out of focus save for my brother who is caught, forever, looking down at the table instead of his cake. Perhaps I was the reason she didn’t leave him sooner.


Every Mass Attracts Every Other Mass in the Universe

I walk off the stage at a community college literary festival in small-town North Carolina. My hair is short and dark and swoopy. I love the way the back of my head feels when I rub upward, which has become a marker of anxiety, a fidget I barely register—a way to self-soothe.

My hip bones jut against the fabric of my black and gray swirl of a dress. The way it whispers when I walk makes it sound full and flaring but as I pull at the hem, I realize it’s perhaps too short on my tall frame, too short for my age.

On the edge of my bed this morning, I sat rolling opaque tights the way my grandmother taught me. Pointing my toes, nails still crocus purple but flaking, I stopped to forward fold, one leg in, one leg out. Heart forward. Rising to break open, palms together. There are rituals (psychiatrists and therapists prefer the more clinical phrase “healthy habits”) I can perform to keep from dissociating, but two days after her death, the looping haze is a comfort.

“You’re gonna do just fine, hon.”

A stage like my elementary school’s. High varnish. A book in my hands. A voice in my mouth. A perimeter. A mote of firebreath tulips whirring past the car window. Tightness in my chest. My body is a thing that exists. I’ll never let this hair grow. In the background, Björk sings something pearl-eyed and extraterrestrial.

And there’s one of the other writers, her legs shining like she’s dipped in gold leaf, thanking me for bringing my grandmother into this space with us, how grief knocks you out of the orbit of your own life and she speaks her dead brother’s name but I don’t know how he died and I search for his image until all I can feel is the fuzzy, fuzzy back of my head.


There Is News Along the Ohio River, I-III

On Christmas Eve the mist is freezing to the rails on the Big Four Bridge and a woman removes her shearling gloves to touch ice crystals forming in divots on the rusted iron; a man, eight-layers bundled, lights prayer candles around gifts he’s pulled from his cart—deodorant, shampoo, wet wipes and warm socks, pen and ink drawings on thick paper, cheddar popcorn in twist-tied baggies, crayons and bottled water—and when he blows the flame out on the incense stick he used to light them, he bows his head, the smoke winding up around his shoulders before settling back into his puffed-up torso, a shawl of holiness shared.

There is news along the Ohio River: two sour cherries lollygag on the Indiana side whispering tales of buckets and coughing out reminiscences of hard work, how it feels to split two joined at the stem and drop one into a lover’s open palm; they say you’ll remember one day—one day you’ll bite down, release tart sugars that catch in your jaw, and break into a smile like nobody’s business.

There is news along the Ohio River: a man has washed his clothes with bar soap and draped them over the wall to dry while he charges his phone at the docks and another unfolds a mesh chair, opens a cup of chicken livers to warm in the thin March sun to get good and stinky just like your grandfather had all those years ago when he hoisted you on his shoulders where you saw the Ferris wheel spinning along down the shore like it was weighed down with mud and in its labored mechanics, your future, your hands reaching for river water like it gave birth to you.


BETH GILSTRAP is the author of Deadheading & Other Stories, winner of the 2019 Red Hen Press Women’s Prose Prize and finalist for the 2021 Foreword Reviews Awards in Short Fiction. She is also the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. She lives with C-PTSD and is quite vocal about ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. Find Beth on Twitter @BettySueBlue.


Featured image by Saad Ahmad courtesy of Unsplash


Author’s Note

All three of these microessays were crafted at different times in Kathy Fish’s Fast Flash Workshops in the first year of the pandemic. I live with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and not only had I lost the majority of my coping methods with the world shutting down, but I also got separated, sold a house, and moved five hundred miles from the only home I’ve ever known. I needed prompts because my brain was in a constant state of fight or flight, which leads to a lot of physical symptoms, difficulty concentrating, and often, dissociation. Kathy’s workshops have been a godsend for me as she is able to get me to let go of the anxious, overthinking side of my brain and let the subconscious take over and tackle subjects I’ve never had the guts to tackle.

“The Pythagorean Theorem” was my response to the instruction to write the story of a photo that haunts you. I have held back from writing about my mother over the years. It’s complicated. Beyond complicated, because I barely know her. I wanted to capture this image of her pregnant with me, the sadness and desperation in her body language and in my elder sibling’s as well. They were living in an abusive situation I was about to be born into, and though I have deep anger at my mother’s conservative—now bizarre QAnon—worldview, I still have empathy and compassion for all she went through, what she got us out of, and the complexity of navigating it all; hence, the triangles as a metaphor for my internal conflict.

Like my short fiction, my creative nonfiction is always in conversation. Think Faulkner: every piece is connected. Just before writing “Every Mass Attracts Every Other Mass in the Universe,” I had been listening to a lot of astronomy podcasts, so I was thinking about the nature of time, how I find the laws of physics comforting and often just flat-out weird. I look for synchronicity, for patterns, and leading up to the release of my second book, I could not help but reflect on my first book, which was published two weeks before my beloved grandmother’s death. There is more dissociation here, but there is also reaching for connection as I always am, and seldom feel.

And finally, with the series “There Is News Along the Ohio River, I-III,” which is likely to be a book (IV-VIII have been published in Five South), I am simply trying to cling to this world, to be present despite my shattered heart, to acknowledge that beauty still exists. Since my move to Louisville, I’ve spent the majority of my time alone and my only solace has been walking the Big Four Bridge, which connects Louisville, Kentucky, to Jeffersonville, Indiana. I believe these walks have saved my life. Each piece starts with the same line like Terrance Hayes’s brilliant American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. I hope the repetition mimics the movement, the volatile and steadfast nature, the coexistence of calm and wild in this place. Writing this series is my attempt to illustrate and share all I’ve witnessed on the river and how it has affected my mental health.


BETH GILSTRAP is the author of Deadheading & Other Stories, winner of the 2019 Red Hen Press Women’s Prose Prize and finalist for the 2021 Foreword Reviews Awards in Short Fiction. She is also the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. She lives with C-PTSD and is quite vocal about ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. Find Beth on Twitter @BettySueBlue.