Learning to Handstand

By Ashley Bales


To begin you throw your face at the ground and hope your arms catch you. Learning to handstand is a plunge. It’s a pivot downwards, a swing of the legs, a jump, and you’re upside down. At the beginning you’re pitiful and intimately familiar with your own graceless hops. At every step you know where your body is: your legs frog out, your toes reach back, you grip your quads like a lifeline. But attached to what? You look forward, feet in the air, and your hands are impossibly far from your eyes. Your feet land back on the ground, having completed a failed leapfrog, minus the partner. But you overcome the embarrassment because anything worth learning begins with flailing, searching through familiar but inappropriate tools for one that may at least get you started. You have to begin with flailing frog hops, because that’s what you’ve got, and so you do. You jump your feet again into the air, you swear your toes reach further back, but your ass, with a newfound gravity, pulls you back down.

       These early trials will last longer than you like, but one day your hands come down, your legs swing up and they stay there. You’ve found space and your body disappears into it. You lose yourself. Your weight is sucked out of you and you can’t feel your body. Like Peter Pan, you can fly.

       But today we have the benefit of technology to steal all magic from the world, so you record your accomplishment and see that your minutes of flight are unrecordable milliseconds and your legs retain the kinks of an airborne amphibian. The bliss of losing your body is a step, but not an endpoint. It is the adrenaline, endorphin rush of risk, of lost control. But like any tantrum throwing toddler, being out of control may feel powerful, but won’t get you anywhere. This is when you are able to begin. You’ve learned enough to throw yourself into a precarious balance, now you have to learn the trick of control, build the necessary supports, master the tools.

       I’m not there. My supports aren’t entirely built in yet. I need a wall, a steadying hand at the ankle. But when I’m upside down, struggling to concrete myself to the vertical—only the practicality of my bones to fight against—I begin to be able to find my body: pelvis neutral. Abs in. Ribs together. Ribs down. Elbows forward. Shoulders, shoulders, shoulders over fingers. Look at the ground. See the ground. I am solid, physically placed. My body is learning a vocabulary of awareness and balance. Space holds different possibilities and I begin to have the ability to exist in the world inverted.

It’s brutally hard.

Ashley Bales is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Student Picks: Johnson


Ashley Bales-- Denis Johnson spent his career writing “people who totaled their souls,” “Not bad people, not evil people, but actually storms of innocence. Deadheads telling their tears.” He explored “the violence inside a man.” He discussed death, ruminated on the psyche’s physical confinement within the body, within the strictures of society.  He was fascinated with the paired concepts of freedom and constraint and his characters tested the limits of these boundaries. He dismissed moral systems that would dehumanize his characters because of this struggle. In Already Dead, Johnson strings these ideas together in a meandering plot that serves as a scaffold for his most comprehensive exploration of the human experience as a struggle between the soul, society, and the physical world.

The characters in Already Dead inhabit a world of violence. Nelson Fairchild spends the book running from killers. His brother William is a recluse, attacked by rays coming through the air itself. Carl Van Ness is a weaponized body, his soul no longer present. When Nelson Fairchild is finally caught by the assassins pursuing him, his consciousness expands, his last moments become infinite, he lies on a beach dying and “[begins] to understand that he’d accomplished these innumerable journeys, so many and so involved he could hardly remember them, in a radius of three or four feet.”


This exploration of what it means for a life to end continued throughout Johnson’s career. Nelson’s death is echoed in another of Johnson’s death scene, that of Link from his story “Triumph Over the Grave” in his posthumously published collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. The elderly and dying Link wakes to find himself in the wrong room. He steps outside, towards a gulley leading into “…the roaring extinction into which ocean, earth, and sky had disappeared.” Instead of heading towards this “roaring extinction,” Link “banked left, circled around the corner of the house to balance in front of his bedroom’s back door—situated about sixteen feet diagonally across this bedroom from the sliding doors he’d walked out of. The journey had covered thirty or forty paces and lasted under ninety seconds.”

In these passages, Johnson portrays the psychic life of an individual as infinitely large and uncontainable, yet lets it rest, like nesting dolls, within the increasingly limited confines of a life, a home, a body. As Fairchild and Link are on the verge of death, they experience unclear boundaries between the perception of their vast psychic world and their limited physical world. Over and over again, Johnson develops narrative tension in exploring a character’s psychic freedoms within a confining reality. But Johnson’s fascination with this contrast is not limited to explorations of confinement; he is equally interested in the limits of psychic freedom, explicitly explored in the drug addled narratives of Jesus’ Son and the soul hopping discussions of Already Dead.

Already Dead is a novel that is likely to polarize readers. There are long metaphysical and Nietzschean rants. Neslon Fairchild has more lives than your average cat and few characters are living by the end of the novel. The violence is extravagant and upsetting. The depiction of humanity is bleak. But for those who have ever felt alien within their bodies, felt their soul beating away at their insides, certainly anyone who wants to delve into Johnson’s deepest ruminations, it is essential reading.

Johnson’s exploration of these themes throughout his body of work does not leave you with a unified theory. He did not write from a rigid platform but as one searching—a searching that imbued his work with vibrancy—pulling meaning where he could find it. For those less inclined to Already Dead’s aggressions, “Triumph Over the Grave” offers a softer exploration, turning its attention not towards an individual’s struggle to live, but towards death’s dissolution of relationships and the pain of lost companionship. 

Student Picks: Cusk and Gyasi


Ashley Bales-- I started Outline, by Rachel Cusk while on a plane headed towards spring break destinations, which is appropriate given Cusk’s book opens with her headed to the airport. On her flight to Athens where she’s teaching at a writing workshop, Cusk’s narrator hears her neighbor’s life story. I too, I suppose, hear that story on my flight. Our respective flights land, we both head into unfamiliar apartments. She proceeds to collect stories from her fellow instructors, friends, writers, we hear from each of her students. These stories are told for the length of a conversation and then abandoned. As a reader, I learn more about these acquaintances than the narrator, or at least any details of her life. You get to know her through her questions and her empathy, but most importantly through her criticisms. The care given to each new character in Outline makes it a case study in the diversity of experience, in perception and characterization.  There is a delicacy to the prose that makes the narrator’s sharp criticism’s feel personal. They sting a bit more than expected, breaking expectations and challenging the reader to assess their assumptions. Outline is cultural critique with a thesis centered on the power of storytelling and assembled with a craftsmanship that shows you the stitching without revealing how it was made. When I got back to the states, I bought the sequel, Transit.


Margaret McNellis-- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a rare and beautiful novel. Not only does Gyasi work magic with the task of telling a cohesive story over the course of nine generations in just 300 pages, but she works magic with her language and application of themes. There were moments—throughout the book—when I was physically choked up for the suffering endured by the various characters. This brings up yet another success of Gyasi’s—her masterful creation of more than a dozen point-of-view characters without creating confusion for the reader.

How does she do this? Without spoiling any surprises, Gyasi writes a story from the point of view of each of these dynamic characters in moments of great personal change. She connects these experiences to those of each character’s ancestors in a way that reminds every reader of what it really means to have the events of history touch one’s life, sometimes in unforeseeable ways.

Student Picks: Davis, Melville


Margaret McNellis--Versailles by Kathryn Davis follows Marie Antoinette from her marriage to Louis XVI to the end of her life at the mercy of the revolutionaries. Davis delves into Antoinette’s spirit, exploring what it might have felt like to be in her shoes—not the Antoinette that lives on through the historically inaccurate phrase, “Let them eat cake,” but rather through the eyes of a bright young woman required to fit into a confining role. Simultaneously, Davis presents the recent history of the French Monarchy, from the Sun King (Louis XIV) to Louis XVI through a discussion on changes to the architecture, landscaping, and design of Versailles.

In addition to all of these fascinating and beautiful details, what struck me was the structure Davis employs. While most of the story is told through first-person point of view, narrated by the Queen herself, interludes are presented as scenes in a play, providing insight into other characters’ points of view about Antoinette, Louis XVI, and contemporary French politics.


Ashley Bales--This year faculty member Lydia Peelle participated in a marathon reading of Moby Dick, that takes place annually at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I first heard about this marathon reading from Lydia a year ago, so when I took my copy off the shelf to get me through the holidays, her description of these celebratory readings was in my head. As I sat reading, watching my husband string Christmas lights on the tree my father had decided to let us decorate that year, I tried reading a sentence or two aloud. The words rolled off my tongue--round words, old words--and I ran out of breath before the first period. After Christmas, my husband, my brother and I drove 13 hours north from San Jose to visit my mother in Seattle. A week later we drove back and instead of podcasts or burning through an audio book, I practiced my breath control and read Moby Dick. It was wonderful to feel the language in those long, rhythmic sentences, feel Melville change the cadence with the lowering boats, adjust to Queeaueg's dialect, attack the consonant "Moby Dick" in Ahab's drawl. I didn't get through it all on the drive, had to finish it silently on the flight back home to New York. In those final ferocious moments I wished I could have made myself breathless with Melvilles words.

Hear Lydia Peelle talk about the annual marathon in this interview with NPR. 


by Ashley Bales


I was at my least constrained on the subway. My mother would drop me at the Wonderland Blue Line stop and my high school’s van picked me up at the end of the Red Line. In between, I was as physically and socially liberated as I’d ever been. I was 14 and getting my first taste of the freedoms that would come with adulthood.

It was that critical moment of early adolescence when you begin to see yourself as socially independent from the nurturing institutions of family and school that up to that point have allowed you to move through the world without being aware of it.  And thus the conflicts of adolescence are born. These same social institutions are not ready to give up their control, while the adolescent’s burgeoning independence stretches their limits.

I would put on my headphones—riled by the anger and energy of early aughts metal and grunge—and stare at people. I thought I was challenging them, judging their meek adult choices. They wouldn’t even return my glance, or would look away. I cherished those averted eyes like victories; sure I’d won something in the exchange. Now, if I picture myself then, my stares would have looked only like a child’s: unselfconscious and ignorant of social norms. I was challenging no one, except perhaps myself—to engage with the world in the meekest way I could, by looking. 

But at some point between 14 and 15, something changed. Sometimes, not always, perhaps not even often, but often enough, men looked back. When they did, my vulnerability was unquestionable, even to myself. I stopped looking.

I was a late bloomer. Apply that as broadly as you like. At 15 I’d only just gotten my first period and was not yet sufficiently endowed to understand the benefit of bras. What changed my stares from being a child’s to an adolescent’s was all in the styling. I’d made timid inquiries into my peer’s social graces and begun putting mascara in my eyebrows, along with anywhere else that seemed appropriate.

The first time a stranger told me to smile I was transferring at South Station. I smiled, surprised to feel seen. The same man would tell me to smile repeatedly over the next year and I learned not to look at him.

The only thing unique about this story is perhaps the degree of social freedom I felt possible at 14. A more socially adept 14 year old, one better enculturated into the expectations of girlhood, would not have been so surprised at the attention. And even for me, it was a lesson quickly learned--my desire to stand out tempered by a growing understanding of what it meant to be seen. 

That same year I had my first kiss, my first boyfriend, had sex for the first time and none of it was as empowering as riding the subway and looking freely at the world around me.

Ashley Bales is a current student of The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.

Thanksgiving as Adulthood

by Ashley Bales


I’ve never gone home for Thanksgiving.  Not since ‘going’ became part of the complication.  Certainly, I had many lovely Thanksgivings at home before I left home, but since moving out of my parents’ house I’ve never made the trip back just for the comforts of family and my father’s unbeatable stuffing and pumpkin pie.  Some of my favorite Thanksgivings, however, have been as an adult, with friends and stragglers and all the rest who also found long distance travel a month before Christmas impractical. 

In college, my Thanksgivings were full of friends as broke as I was.  None of us knew how to cook a turkey and setting the table felt like dress-up.  We bought gallons of Carlo Rossi and traded who got to drink out of the one unbroken wine glass.  By grad school I was making stuffing almost as well as my father and amazed my international friends, who had never seen a 20 lb turkey.  My greatest successes were the years when we were all too busy to go home, home was too far.  We were stuck here and I knew what to do with a baster and a carving knife. 

A year after my now husband and I started dating, his parents decided they’d come to New York for the holiday.  This was complicated by my brother, who subsequently announced that while he didn’t have leave for Christmas, he could make it to the west coast for Thanksgiving.  When I explained why I regrettably would not be able to see him, as I was already committed in the east, he joyously insisted he would come to me instead. My mother and step-father quickly joined the caravan.  My place couldn’t accommodate a crowd, so we’d host at my boyfriend Mike’s. The day before, Mike, his mother, her boyfriend and I headed off to buy the groceries with the last of her food stamps.  As we were walking out of the apartment she suggested we check the size of the oven.  I scoffed, she insisted, and I ran in to find an oven not much bigger than a bread box.  There would be no way to cook the turkey in it.  Luckily, my apartment, a mere 4 blocks away, had a beautiful oven.  We’d cook the bird there, and bring it over for dinner. 

The day came.  Timers were set, the parade was on.  Mike and I took turns running over to my apartment to baste the bird.  My mother arrived with chicken soup, and the meeting of the families happened blessedly in my absence, as I frantically basted 4 blocks away.  A friend called at some point to ask if she could bring someone and then showed up with three extra Parisians who sat between the parents and either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English.  My step-father announced that he was vegetarian, when I’d only ever known him to be lazily kosher and Mike ran out to buy fish.  Someone’s dog took a shit on the floor and I managed to carry all 22 lbs of that turkey the four long blocks in a crumpling aluminum pan without dumping it onto the sidewalk.  It was not my favorite Thanksgiving, but it was the first with my husband.

Since, Thanksgivings have become less adventuresome. Friends have enough money to go to their families.  They have families of their own. None of us are playing at adulthood anymore. Worst of all, everyone can cook now, though I can be confident—particularly with the new spatchcocking craze—that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a stuffing as good as mine. 

Happy Thanksgiving.

Ashley Bales is a current student of The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.

Last Week/This Week: Growing Pains

by Ashley Bales


It’s a point in the semester where my focus is so splintered between responsibilities, deadlines, grading, that directing any of that focus to my own writing seems unattainable. This is the point in the semester when I tell my students it's time to buckle down and focus. I’m at my most hypocritical, running in circles just trying to keep up with them and knowing that even if I could find a minute to sit down and think about where the hell I left my characters that I wouldn’t have the energy to take them anywhere productive. Criticism, creation, research, all hard work. Not in terms of wielding a sledgehammer, but difficult to work up to the degree of focus necessary to pull together each of these elements, to synthesize and allow them to flow from brain to fingers and thus produce something compelling, universal, personal—whatever comprises that list of values we associate with good literature. I tell my students to keep working and I give up on my own work until December, when the end of the semester is in sight.

Even though I mourn this mid-semester slump in my own productivity, I recognize the value in this splintering. I engage with a wider range of topics and people than I otherwise would. I apply my perspective to different problems and augment it with new information. When I’m able to retreat back to that indulgent space inside my head, where I’m able to write, the surroundings have changed.  This is what learning gets us.

Our universities challenge students and instructors alike to continually break and reform their worldviews, worldviews that are never so self-centered as in those first teenage years away from home. Freshman come to university wrapped up in their adolescence and ultimately will graduate with their prime successes still concerned with identity construction and their own sociality. But they’ll also collect some potent drops of information that may diffuse into their deeper tissues, pull them outside of their selves and allow them to see the world through variously tinted lenses.

Marilynne Robinson, for the New York Review of Books, wrote an impassioned defense of the value of the humanities in an era where American anti-intellectualism is particularly vitriolic. She traced the success of the humanities to their origins in the 1500s, when great thinkers proclaimed their virtues in language imbued with the extravagance of humanist idealism. Support for the humanities recently has been lost not just under the pressures of anti-intellectualism, but increasingly as policy changes (in the form of decreased investment in education) have institutionalized disparities in access that reinforce exclusionary elitism. But the humanities themselves are not to blame and still possess power to unite disparate perspectives and foster exploration.

As a civilization, as a species, we are living through our own troubled adolescence. Humanity hasn't gone through enough mid-semester, mid-century, mid-millenium cycles to know what splintering and struggle can achieve. Or if we have, we haven’t learned our lessons well enough. It is during these times of pressure that were able to rebuild our brains, achieve new understanding, but if we’re unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel, know we will come out of this better than before, it’s easy to lose hope. We’ve got growing pains and not enough experience to know if they’ll ever end. It is a debasing, wrenching process and it is our responsibility to make choices about who we want to be when we come through it, but I have to hope we’ll get there; as Robinson concludes: “And yet, the beautiful persists, and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.”

For some explorations of your own, check out Claire Messud’s interview discussing her own exploration of adolescence in her new book Burning Girl, and Eileen Myles joyous and accidental discovery of beautiful writing in Stafford’s The Mountain Lion.

This week on the blog, Garrett Zecker stumbles upon an old literary idol, and new pieces from Eddie Dzialo and David Moloney.

Ashley Bales is a current student of The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.

Last Week/This Week: Plath, Thoreau and video games

by Ashley Bales


A new volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters were released, a piece of news I discovered first through criticism of the UK edition’s choice to depict Plath as “a blonde in a bikini,” and second in a blurb from Sehgal’s piece in The New York Times discussing Frieda Hughes’ (Plath and Hughes’ daughter) defense of her father. Of the things I care about regarding any publication with Plath’s name on it, low on the list are her beachwear choices and her relationship with her husband.  As for so many young women, Plath was an icon I couldn’t spend enough time with--pouring over her novel, poems, and journals--but I’ve never particularly given a shit about her relationship with Hughes. I’m interested in her writing, not her biography, or her celebrity.  Celebrity is the real issue here and the treatment of female celebrities in contrast to male.  You certainly don’t have to think hard to come up with some male literary suicides where popular interpretations of the act don’t rest on victimization. If Plath was a victim, it is the least interesting thing about her and I would rather remain ignorant of the details than let it shape my interpretation of her work.

Is it indicative of certain continually depressing realities that Faber (the UK publisher) chose a bikini-ed image for their cover? Sure. Is there value in using Plath and Faber’s presentation of her work as exemplar of these issues? Potentially. Does it also place feminist debates before celebration of Plath’s work? Certainly, and I can’t help but mourn the continued need to celebrate successful women for their sex before their substance.

On the subject of journals, Wulf, writing for The Atlantic, discusses Thoreau’s “real masterpiece… …the 2 million word journal he kept until six months before he died.” It depicts Throreau’s struggle with balancing literature and science. Thoreau criticized scientists for their unengaging reports. He believed Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature was poetry, and stated that “Facts fall from the poetic observer like ripe seeds.” Easy for him to say. There is certainly no limit to the poetic details that can be pulled from nature and the more you study the natural the world the more beautifully specific and interconnected these examples can become. The conflict comes in how scientists define rigor and bias, how can you explore the poetry of specificity when metaphor and symbolism are deemed misleading distractions?

For a student interested in a writer’s mind and process, journals are precious; so much more valuable than curated autobiography or criticism’s contextualization. And to avoid hypocrisy, here is Plath, speaking through her journals from the summer of 1958, when she was 26, two years after graduating from Smith College and two years before the publication of her first poetry collection, The Colossus:

Paralysis is still with me. It is as if my mind stopped and let the phenomenon of nature-shiny green rosebugs and orange toadstools and screaking woodpeckers—roll over me like a juggernaut—as if I had to plunge to the bottom of non-existence, of absolute fear, before I can rise again… …Lines occur to me and stop dead: “The tiger lily’s spotted throat.” And then it is an echo of Eliot’s “The tiger in the tiger pit,” to the syllables and the consonance. I observe: “The mulberry berries redden under leaves.” And stop. I think the worst thing is to exteriorize these jitterings… …Defensively, I say I know nothing: lids shut over my mind. And this is the old way of lying: I can’t be responsible, I know nothing. Grub-white mulberries redden under leaves… …Humbly, I can begin these things. Start in two realities that move me, probe their depths, angles, dwell on them. I want to know all kinds of people, to have the talent ready, practiced, ordered, to use them, to ask them the right questions. I forget. I must not for get, not panic, but walk about bold and curious and observant as a newspaper reporter, developing my way of articulation and ordering, losing nothing, not sitting under a snail-shell.

This week on the blog, Eric Beebe writes about childhood memories of his grandmother, Daniel Johnson explores video game narratives, and Shawna Perrin discovers punk-rock.

Ashley Bales is a current student of The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.

Last Week/This Week: highs and lows

by Ashley Bales


There’s a funny thing about living in times where horror and tragedy are around every corner; media hops along, led around by the nose from one horror to the next, and it becomes harder and harder to find conversations focused on furthering literary interests that don’t stray into the mix.  Here lies the conundrum of conformity vs. individuality in the social media age.  How to rise up from beneath the dog-pile of commentary and proclaim: “But my voice! I deserve attention!”  It takes a mighty voice, indeed.  The most a lowly MFA student, slaving away at weekly blog posts, can manage is a meager belly-flop, more pratfall than splashing glory, onto the mess.  I demure.

But the conundrum got me thinking about the variety of dialogues accessible in our troubling times. There are venues for engagement—and for god’s sake, engage—but there is additional loss accrued in abandoning personal commitments: to craft, practice, discourse not pre-occupied with the current socio-political moment, enjoyment in a sunny day.  These are privileged commitments.  The value of directing our privileges towards engagement cannot be understated, but we must allow ourselves time to explore individual voices amid the collectivism.             


I went to the opera this week.  Actually, I went to two operas, which, despite being in the cheap seats, puts me in the 1% of something.  The first opera, Norma, premiered in 1831 when its composer, Bellini, was 30.  Walt Whitman was a particular fan of the opera, as I learned from Barone’s piece in the Times.  Relevant because Whitman is the subject of Aucoin’s (age 27) opera, Crossing, which finished it’s run at BAM’s Next Wave Festival yesterday.  Whitman saw Norma in 1853, when he was 34, two years before he referred to it in Leaves of Grass, and nearly 10 years before he left New York to find his wounded brother and spent the next year volunteering as a nurse in a Union hospital outside of D.C.  Whitman recounted these experiences in Memoranda during the War, which served as Aucoin’s inspiration and source material for Crossing.

There is no explicit connection between Norma and Crossing, but operatic tropes run deep.  Norma is the story of love and betrayal across battle lines (Druid v. Roman) and Crossing focuses on Whitman’s love for a patient of his Union hospital who turns out to be a Confederate deserter.  In my program notes, Aucoin informed me “…Whitman considered opera the pinnacle of human expression...” and, he adds, “…opera is a primal union of animal longing, as expressed in sound, and human meaning, as expressed in language.” 

Only amid the pomp and drama of operatic tradition could Norma’s climactic “Son io” (“It is I.”) –sung at volumes shattering even across the soaring expanse of the 3,800 seat Metropolitan Opera House—be deemed understated.  The Met’s always excellent program notes describe Bellini’s choice to “…strip away the orchestra entirely, leaving Norma’s voice bare and exposed…” as “…simple and honest…” I love opera for its extravagance.  As a writing student, however, I am warned to be cautious of melodrama.  Opera doesn’t play by the same rules; perhaps Whitman didn’t either.

Aucoin drew his opera’s title from Whitman’s poem, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.  It was written prior to Whitman’s time in the hospital and long before the publication of Memoranda during War, but Aucoin chose it for the line: What is it then between us?  This line opens and closes the show, asking the viewer to question what separates us, what draws us together: audience and viewer, author and reader, Union and Confederate, more timely political dualities.  And Aucoin, too, adapts Whitman’s words to present concerns:

You—America—contradictory, confus’d, ill-assorted, cruel and generous mother!...
…I have asked—is this humanity—these butchers’ shambles? I have asked—will the devils in us win the day?
I have asked what the bond is between us.


This week on the blog, Phil Lemos considers what novels best embody the most loved and notorious US presidents, Garrett Zecker discusses the daunting task of choosing what to read, and David Moloney talks storage units.

Ashley Bales is a current student of The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.

Last Week/This Week: time for debate

by Ashley Bales 


Deadlines are the absolute worst, also essential. As someone who both imposes deadlines, in my role as instructor, and needs to abide by them, in my 27th consecutive year as a student, the worst case scenario is the co-occurrence of my student's deadlines and my student deadlines. This is the lovely position I find myself in this week. 

I wanted to write about the drama that might ensue if James Wood and Jonathan Dee sat down with Jenny Erpenbeck to discuss her novel Go, Went, Gone. I would already be breaking with convention by discussing Wood's review from two weeks ago (and not last week), and Dee's review from last month's issue of Harper's, but the disagreement is too juicy, too packed with the trappings of overblown criticism to not dive in. Wood's review is celebratory, while Dee seems to be in full-on crisis mode, using Erpenbeck as an example of all the shortcomings of the novel as a form, realism, and socially conscious art in toto.  

I, unfortunately, don't have time to discuss Dee's criticism of Erpenbeck's character driven consideration of the refugee crisis in Europe: "...to break a movement of millions down into a representative six or eight detailed and tragic personal narratives is not to “explain” or to “humanize” that movement but to fragment and thus diminish it."  Nor do I have time to counter his conviction that Erpenbeck is not aware of her main character's guilt of "the evil of banality," as Wood states.  And I certainly don't have time to read Erpenbeck's words myself.  I have a stack of student proposals and 30 pages of my own to polish and hand in. 

No, I don't have time to understand this horrifying quote from Wood:

Her narratives are rigorous, partial to the present tense, and untempted by the small change of contemporary realism (abundant and superfluous dialogue in quotation marks, sharply individuated characters, tellingly selected detail). 

I do recommend you, reader, whoever you are, if you exist, read and consider for yourselves. Imagine yourself a silent fourth, sipping a bourbon in a deep armchair and hearing appropriately strident voices raging at oppression while "residing among the oppressors..." (Dee), debating how to "make Germany... beautiful again" (Wood), while Erpenbeck presents her novel, full of its own voices and conversations.

This week on the blog, Mark Freeman decides not to send his kid to school in a motel, Laura Dennison explores the difficulties of writing mental illness and Daniel Johnson remembers his time as a paperboy.

Ashley Bales is a current student of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.

Last Week/This Week: Escapism, Collection, and Research

by Ashley Bales


Sometimes a retreat into oneself is necessary for any successful re-engagement, though these days escape can bring with it tidal waves of guilt that rush you back to the captive present with little more than a mild drenching of respite.  To me, John McPhee’s new book of assembled New Yorker essays, Draft No. 4, on writing brings with it the sort of late summer downpour that keeps you locked comfortably indoors without threatening disaster.  It is an unforgivable vice as an aspiring writer to read more books about writing than the writing itself.  As with all my vices I’ve set limits, but some morsels are too irresistible. 

Paris Review Daily reported on the first annual Honey and Wax Bookseller’s book collecting prize and it struck me how inextricable the link is between collecting and research (though the researcher in me is driven to point out the likely effects of selection bias).  There are lots of ways to love books, but compulsive collection isn’t my favorite.  These collectors are described milling their collections for information: accounts of working women in romance novels, accounts of natural disasters.  Their books are tools, which makes a certain sense.  A prize for book collecting is ultimately about objects first and content second, any ephemeral psychic value becomes flimsy in comparison.

Doholt’s essay “On Cruising a Writer’s Oeuvre” identifies a more valuable sort of collection; one that fulfills the writerly value of exploring a perspective. What could keep me from flitting between texts, abandoning them to move on to the next more compelling, potentially more compelling, more enlightening, more beautifully sentenced, more psychically satisfying?  I suffer from the researcher’s compulsions and the writer’s priorities.  Doholt suggests focus.  Direct that drive for collection towards an author’s works instead of books and you’ll unlock both the technical successes of their oeuvre and an appreciation of your own readerly tendencies.

Which brings me back to my guilt in putting down Sally Rooney in order to pick up John McPhee.  There are lots of ways to learn how to write, and while the most explicit may feel like short-cuts, I’ll never write well until I better understand those readerly tendencies.  The task is gargantuan.

This week on the blog Eric Beebe discusses how learning to write changed him, Eddie Dzialo considers the therapeutic value of skydiving, and David Moloney deals with an accumulation of leaves.

Ashley Bales is a current student of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.

Last Week/This Week: Shitstorms, Race, and Slime

by Ashley Bales


We’ve made it to another week without being blown into the ocean or blasted into a radiated hell-scape, though philosopher Byung-Chul Han thinks our values are being swallowed up in a social media “shitstorm.”  Adrian Nathan West’s piece in the LARB reminded me to finish Han’s treatise, In the Swarm, a critique of the effects of the digital age on our lives, sociality and power structures.  It has me glad my foundational worldview is biological not philosophical.  How depressing to always be thinking about the degradation of humanistic values, much better to reject the concept of humanistic values all together.  Ok, ok, our value systems are ecologically and evolutionarily embedded.  They will not get sucked into Han’s “shitstorm” and go poof as easily as our disintegrating civil liberties.  I didn’t say there weren’t consequences, but our humanity isn’t at stake.  I had an up-side when I started this paragraph: grateful to be slaving away at self-production, about to pour over Han’s book.

In other depressing, internet-related news: Amazon ‘pays 11 times less corporation tax than traditional booksellers.’

Toni Morrison discusses her career-long exploration of writing race without color as a means to “…defang racism, annihilate and discredit the routine, easy, available color fetish, which is reminiscent of slavery itself;” Thrity Umrigar is pressured to write only characters belonging to her race; and Mountainview Alumna Nadia Owusu explores the complexity of blackness and her experience as the lighter skinned black girl at her boarding school. Owusu writes: “I used to look to literature to help me understand how to exist in an often racist world.  I sought to understand the unjust rules, and admittedly, how to make them bend in my favor.  Now, I read to understand how to reject them, how to rewrite them.”

This week on the blog, Phil Lemos compares writing a novel to managing a warehouse, a new poem by Curtis Graham, and Daniel Johnson considers the sensory ecstasy of Instagram slime videos.

Ashley Bales is a current student of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.

Last Week/This Week: New Students, Old Arguments, and a Death

by Ashley Bales


The world is full of change and tragedy: John Ashbery died, fall 2017 semesters started across the country, and I am reading a book on my phone.  That list may suffer from issues of scale and context, but not sincerity.  A tragic loss is followed by the inevitable ticking forward of academic clocks to the tune of incoming freshman that will soon demand post-millennial identities, and a stubborn holdout (me) is pushed along. 

The academy continues to rage at itself: down with historic-contextualism, three cheers for practical criticism.  Roth’s irate review of Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History by Joseph North may go a bit too far in bashing literature departments by dismissing their central goal of “the production of knowledge” as a backward facing circle jerk. But one can only hope that the call to action from both author and critic for a more pedagogical focus in which literature may be experienced as opposed to simply contextualized will be answered. For better or worse, my students want nothing more than for me to tell them about themselves—the little egoists. 

As I I shuffle my own way up the ivory tower—hearing the scholars rumble, still closer to the students—new semesters mean new jobs.  Mixed feelings is how I’d describe the revelation that one of these new employers has a tenure-like system for adjuncts.  Tenure-adjacent, you won’t get fired, but you won’t have the time or energy for any frivolous writing (or knowledge production).  The other new employer had me interviewed by students for a week not to see if I got the job (which I had), but if my class would be a good fit for them.  The pedagogy there runs deep.  Perhaps there’s hope after all?

In other shocking changes to what we read and its context: a Page-Turner post on “The Promise and Potential of Fanfiction” proved portentous as “Alleged Author of…My Immortal…Announces Book Deal.”  Sometimes these things happen and there’s no fighting it.

For antidote: Mountainview visiting author Joshua Cohen has a new story out in Wired, and faculty member Justin Taylor reviews Jenny Zhang's Sour Heart in the current issue of Bookforum.

This week on the blog we'll have current student Garrett Zecker discussing Zweig on the 75th anniversary of his suicide and Eddie Dzialo on the difficulty of writing war.  Alumnus David Moloney finds "Devils at the Stateline."

Ashley Bales is a current student of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.


by Ashley Bales


A funny thing about beginnings: they’re always false.  They share this with endings, but while writers often talk about false endings, beginnings simply don’t start at the right time.  ‘Begin as near to the end as possible’ is an idea about containment and a good lesson in why life and literature differ, or we can hope.  A blog has a life and will begin as lives do at whatever moment an individual is born to it and will experience many more beginnings than the first.  So, hello again.  I give you the re-beginning of the Assignment blog.

I was once a paleontologist and finding beginnings was my job.  Never the first beginning, only a committed search for prior beginnings.  When a new species appears—something like this blog, reappearing, not reborn—it can always be traced earlier, though its life is no less significant for it.  Needless to say, a blog for a literary magazine for an MFA program functions on hyperbolically compressed timescales relative to the life of a species.  It adheres to the rhythms of application, acceptance, concentration, graduation, with new voices added and lost in 6 month cycles.  It’s agglutinative, stratigraphic, an exercise in context.

Criticism is also an exercise in context: the successes of literary criticism (and the lit blogs that practice it) are not bound to facile judgement, but the ability to contextualize.  This incarnation of the Assignment blog is re-begun within the context of me, my Mountainview cohort, the Fall 2017 entering to graduating classes, the year 2017, Trump’s America, all of our Americas, the blogosphere, a publishing landscape stuck continually re-beginning in a world where blogospheres exist (unless they don’t anymore), and a deep continuity of literary practice and practitioners reaching back without beginning to our earliest humanity. 

My point being, an education in context aggrandizes the whole, as it humbles each individual start. Let's begin.

Last Week: Nabokov, Hardwick, and Emojis

For all the discussion of engagement flying around these days it’s hard not to want to ostrich-up once in a while.  A new collection of interviews with Nabokov demonstrates his stubborn disengagement. He “… [didn’t] give a damn for the group, the community, the masses, and so forth…” limiting his political opinions to: "Portraits of the head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in size."  What would he have thought of this morsel?

In this inspiring profile of Elizabeth Hardwick, Sarah Nicole Prickett describes her as a "domestic writer," acknowledging the weight of applying that term to a woman. Prickett seems unsure how to discuss this unarguably feminist icon in the context of Hardwick's skepticism of feminism.  Like Nabokov her concerns were literary and in so far as she did actively engage in and even help shape feminist literary criticism, she refused to be drawn beneath its homogenizing banner. 

As citizens, that ideal unification we strive for turns us into the homogenized masses, which, as Auden so eloquently argues in his classic essay "The Poet and the City," has no place in literature. At least not as long as literature is still at its most powerful when presenting individual experience.  

But a little engagement is unavoidable: Emoji poetry has made it into The Paris Review (blog), The New Yorker came out with it's first ever television issue mere days after Game of Thrones set it's narrative priorities airborne, but at least Curb Your Enthusiasm is coming back?

I'd rather go back to reading about Nabokov apologizing for cliched butterflies.

Ashley Bales is a current student of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.  She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.