• June Story Club: A Crooked Still Life

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in WBN Story Club     Comments 11 comments

    TL;DR version: Our second selection for the WBN Story Club is Margaret Malone’s essay ”A Crooked Still Life.” What follows is a bunch of gobbledygook about why I picked it, and then some instructions on how to participate. If you want to skip all of that, the link to the story is at the end of the post. Enjoy!


    Great work, story clubbers, in discussing our first entry, Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” I think we did it justice. (They is, they is.)

    This month let’s do similar justice to a piece of nonfiction from an Oregon writer, Margaret Malone, which comes courtesy of a recommendation from WBNer Steve C.

    “A Crooked Still Life” was published in November 2013 by Oregon Humanities. It tracks Malone and her husband’s journey from Oregon to Boston, where he undergoes proton beam therapy to remove what remains of a tumor behind his left eye.


    “We drove because we craved the numbing constant of highway and sky through a windshield and because we needed the three thousand miles of slowly changing terrain to digest what we’d already been through that year and to prepare for what the next two months in Boston might bring,” Malone writes early on in the piece. “Anticipating the drive out, I felt a melancholy kind of excitement.”

    Rather than fly, the couple makes a road trip out of it, because they “felt like playing hooky from the heaviness of our life.”

    But as we all know, heaviness has a way of following us around.


    Link and Discussion Tips

    You can find the essay online here.

    It’s only 2,220 words, so I encourage you to read it twice; once to be swept away to Storyland, like we talked about a couple of weeks ago, and a second time to see what you can learn from Malone’s methods for taking us there.

    And then let’s get chatting in the comments below!

    Leave us your impressions, questions, arguments, insights and discoveries. Tick “notify” to receive an email whenever someone responds to your comment. That way you can keep up with what’s a-happenin’.

    No rush; we’ll talk about this piece until the next one posts, sometime in mid-July. So read and discuss at your own pace.

    If you have any suggestions for July’s entry, let ‘er rip.

    And enjoy Margaret Malone’s “A Crooked Still Life“!


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and writes about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coaching, private instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    11 Comments to “June Story Club: A Crooked Still Life”

    • I’ll save my comments on the piece for later on, but for now, some of you might find the following links on Margaret Malone’s writing useful for your own writing.

      In the following interview, she discusses what it was like to work with a legendary teacher of writing named Tom Spanbauer (his workshop takes place outside the university system, so this story might be useful for WriteByNighters doing the same); her twelve years or so writing short stories before putting them together in a collection; how she and her publisher found each other. There’s also an amusing anecdote about seeking a blurb for her book from a writer she greatly admires. The interview begins at 11:10:


      There’s also this piece on how she writes her stories:


      • Thank you for the links and info, Stephen.

        And here’s her website, which contains links to other stories and essays available online:


    • Hi gang. I know our website was down for parts of the last two days, and that some of you tried to come leave comments. Bad timing. But thanks for letting us know.

      We fixed the problem. So whenever you’re ready, let’s get discussing!

    • I am reminded of the character Red from Shawshank Redemption when he tries to describe the hold and power of institutionalization to his fellow inmates. When you are in the grips of some chaotic tumble of life, and you have only one clear and obvious path forward it can be an empowering, liberating experience however tragic the circumstances may be. As our narrator inches closer to the end of that experience, back to a life of vast and infinite possibility or pointless and mundane normality, we can fell her apprehension through her tone. The polaroids were an effective way of imparting some of the imagery that one longs for when they look out in to an unsympathetic world searching the landscape for some explanation that it can never provide. I’ve done as much myself. I thought the social workers were placed effectively as well. They came across to me as some bizarre form of comic relief to bridge a gap. They reminded me a bit of those old men muppets that sit in the balcony making wisecracks at the scene below them. I thought the story was very heavy, but I could relate with it. I was not so much entertained as I was rendered to an introspective state.

      • There’s something so fascinating about that transition out of our mundane day-to-day, and then the transition back into it. Think of a death in the family. Suddenly you’re ripped out of your routine, and for a few days you’re just in this weird, almost surreal existence where everything you’re used to has been uprooted and you kind of wander around in a fog. And then after those few days you’re just supposed to go back to your life. What?

        I think Malone does a great job with that here, showing how bizarre are those “chaotic tumbles of life,” as you so well put it, and then the sort of “What now?” feeling upon returning, where you know nothing will ever be the same, but you’re expected to act like nothing has changed.

        Thank you for the Statler & Waldorf reference. Wouldn’t it be great if that’s what she envisioned when writing those social workers?

    • Malone’s journey reminds me of how it feels to live with a drug addict…never quite trusting what you see or hear. I think the polaroids do a good job of representing her need for a tangible documentation that makes sense. I really liked the use of the social workers to be that first contact and offer the very first hint of letting go of the burden and the consequences of that. The caregiver holds on tight, lots of research shows the toll of ones own health when caring for another. Can this person really be speaking the truth? It’s a complicated personal struggle. Finally, the father shares his wisdom that the journey is in fact not over but hopefully acts as a guide.

      • Thank you for stopping by, Linda. That’s an interesting analogy, the mate of a drug addict going through a similar experience as that of the mate of someone with a serious illness, and the toll it can take to spend so much of one’s energy and emotion on caring for that person. Thanks for sharing that insight.

    • For me, this essay and story by Malone is perfect for its poise. I admire that quality in people, whether in writing or on any of the other stages we have. I have spoken recently with David about an article in The New Yorker by Jia Tolentino that declared the age of confessional writing, spurred on by the internet, is over. A controversial piece, but one that I’m glad someone finally put to print.

      The market is saturated with life stories, and most of these come from women writers. Within a competitive market, people are willing to spill their secrets, and the more sensational, the greater chance at recognition. In essence, Tolentino is showing how willing we are to prostitute ourselves for – maybe – 200 dollars from a magazine, and a look from agents. On the other side of the ledger, there are all those established writers giving life lessons on topics such as marriage, what Malone addresses here. I am thinking of The Bitch in the House type genre, Sandra Tsing Loh and her (humorous) battles with menopause, and so on. These are often very insightful, especially for men like myself. For my intensively critical eye, however, it’s inevitable that these pieces, as honest as they can be, turn out to be bleakly one-sided, or lazy for the way they take a vacation from the writers’ more serious work. The question Tolentino asks is, Why would we ever not treat our secrets with more art or ambition?

      So when I say “poise” for Malone, I mean that she navigates this dangerous, self-destructive terrain with remarkable good sense, aesthetic and emotional. We are brought into a marriage, the kind of report that doesn’t make it up onto our Facebook pages. But we are also given the kind of details that make Malone’s short stories a joy to read – the cold feet in the shoes, for example. I won’t bore everyone with my philosophical musings, but when Malone writes, “I could feel the loud emptiness coming. We were headed straight for it,” that’s the territory she covers in her short stories, with a lighter touch. There’s a kind of vacuum to American life I think we all understand well. Some acknowledge it. Most of us pretend it’s not there. In fiction, this is usually occupied with stories of bums, misfits, losers and loners, vigilantes and thugs, or the usual assortment of middle class drop-outs gone wrong. Malone doesn’t fall for that authenticity trap either. It’s all about ordinary people who hit these dark places, but who cannot make out the detail to their lives, sort of like with how the Polaroids work in this essay. For all of the above reasons and more, I admire Margaret Malone’s writing greatly.

      • Here’s the Jia Tolentino piece Stephen refers to above: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/jia-tolentino/the-personal-essay-boom-is-over

        Stephen, I wonder if there’s more to be said about “the writers’ more serious work.” You find a lack of seriousness due to the laziness of the writing itself, which you mentioned, or does it have more to do with theme/topic, the way Tolentino points to “categories” such as “one-off body-horror pieces”?

    • David:

      By one-off, I think Tolentino is referring to the phenomenon I’m sure we’re all aware of, of the “They loved me on the internet! I got a book contract! Now what do I do?” You see these kinds of essays on LitHub and The Millions all the time. The agents ask the unusually attractive personality for a novel or a memoir. Five years have passed with nothing produced, yet what a social media following this person has! At best, the attractive personality has produced what the buyers want: more of the same, in terms of candid memoir. At worst, the memoirist has this vague sense that she is being exploited for potential market share. Then she considers art, thus the prolonged delay. “Get your voice out there”, which internet culture encourages, is a form of this one-off-ism. Tolentino might not like “body-horror” pieces and such but that’s just a matter of taste. There are only so many human topics to cover, and they’re all being covered. But how are we handling them? What’s the vision behind them? I think that’s what she’s driving at. Let’s not confuse a form of advertising for art. Everyone has an interesting life-story to tell, but not everyone can rise above the noise with integrity.

      What was your opinion of Tolentino’s piece? Be honest! :)

    • I enjoyed the essay and the comments posted here equally as much. I have nothing to add. As Andrew Davis suggested, I have been reduced to an introspective state. My mind is mulling the essay over, but not with words.

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