Exploring the art of prose


Tag: Response

Author’s Note

As a writer who double-majored in psychology and anthropology as an undergraduate, I’ve always been fascinated by the unexpected narratives found in primary documents. Scientific articles, conference papers, and field notes all have a relatively rigid structure that authors are expected to follow. As such, readers know what to expect in terms of structure, voice, and tone regardless of the text’s content. The type or “genre” of the piece provides a shape to fill while also instituting a number of constraints that can feel either familiar to those well-versed in the field, or completely isolating to outsiders not familiar with the rules and vocabulary of the discourse community.

For me, the real magic happens when fiction tackles one of these shapes, taking on a hybrid form that blurs the boundary between what is considered “real” or objective and what is clearly invention. Numerous contemporary novels incorporate both short- and long-form documents, such as Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (written as an English Literature syllabus) and Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members (written as a series of letters of recommendation). Perhaps the novel I most had in mind when I started writing “A Last-Minute Addendum,” however, was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. While the majority of the book is narrated in a first-person present tense perspective, aligning the reader with Offred, the “Historical Notes” section at the end of the novel reveals that everything that has come before was recorded as a series of spoken tapes, likely sometime after the original events took place. It is up to the close reader to go back and reconsider what she has read in light of the newly unveiled constraint of audio tapes. Why did Offred choose to recount her experience as though it were happening at the present moment? Can the spoken aspect of the tapes account for the vast temporal shifts between chapters and even paragraphs, with Offred often weaving in between the past and the theoretical present? What does Atwood gain be reconfiguring the narrative as a static primary document at the book’s end? Does the transcript nature of the “Historical Notes” suggest that even more time has passed since the Twelfth Symposium on Gilead Studies?

In “A Last-Minute Addendum,” I took inspiration from Atwood’s conference transcript, formatting the short story as an addendum to a presentation at the Annual Conference for the Advancement of Modern Psychoanalysis. At the time, I was also working on a theory paper that drew heavily from Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body which dives into issues of disordered eating, treatments being implemented in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and links between anorexia, hysteria, and agoraphobia. I found myself reading contentious conference transcripts in which doctors, psychologists, and academics argued about the true source of the rising prevalence of eating disorders amongst teen girls. I saw the opportunity to borrow part of the conference format while flipping the typical vocabulary, tone, and content on its head. I wanted to write a piece that both complied with and completely subverted the genre, turning the vocabulary and theories of psychoanalysis back around to make a commentary on the popular family-centered therapy being implemented at the time.

Formatting the story as a fictional document also felt appropriate given the other real-life inspiration behind the piece: a six-story brownstone on Stuyvesant Street that once belonged to the grandmother of a former romantic partner. The brownstone was, at once, one of the most terrifying and wondrous places I’ve ever been, stuffed to the brim with both genuine antiques and recreations—imported crystal chandeliers, tableaux of Victorian taxidermy, Hindu statues, and yes, those first edition illustrated pages from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The house itself was part-forgery, part-museum, which felt like the perfect setting for a story that strived to achieve a similar feat. In that same vein, by repeatedly invoking Alice and the world of Wonderland, I hoped to reinforce the upside down that is both Yael’s course of treatment and a story set in a skewed yet familiar world—strange, wondrous, and maze-like in its depths.

JESS E. JELSMA is a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati and holds an MFA in prose from the University of Alabama. Her previous work has appeared in CatapultFlywayIndiana ReviewThe Normal SchoolPost RoadPrinters Row, and various other publications. She can be found online at jessejelsma.com or @jessejelsma.