A woman walked into my office with Peter Pan on her hip. The blonde toddler wore a forest green smock and a matching pointy hat, fashioned with a red felt feather. His mother cut the frock from the body of an old t-shirt and repurposed a sleeve for the hat. She told us the t-shirt was from her time in the The Youth Leadership Academy when she was in high school: “It was a great sounding name for a resume, but all we did was go on camping trips,” she said. I tried to say hello to Peter Pan, but he put his hand over his eyes and hid in his mother’s neck. Then I returned to my computer screen and they went to eat grilled cheese.
This is the stuff of Jenny Boully’s fifth book, Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life: imagination, the movement of time, how things can be and not be simultaneously. The book’s title comes from J.M. Barrie’s liminal portrayal of Peter Pan in The Little White Bird. Boully sees Peter Pan as something akin to her own writing, which “isn’t quite this or that” as readers of her four previous books—The Body, [one love affair]*, The Book of Beginnings and Endings, and not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them—will know. In a meta-twist, the nineteen essays in Betwixt also aren’t quite this or that; most are misfit pieces Boully couldn’t fit into her projects over the last two decades. Together, they coexist to spin a web of knives, witchcraft, magnetic poetry, monarch butterflies, love affairs, heartbreak, death, and discussions of Boully’s writing craft.
But to call this a book of craft is to do it disservice. Boully doesn’t give you tips to better yourself as a writer. Instead, she discusses her own writing life. Sometimes she “feel[s] like a very bad writer” and others she just doesn’t write. “Lewis Caroll said he believed in ‘periods of intense work followed by periods of perfect idleness,’” Boully writes. “I hate to admit that I also operate in this way. I may work on a project for three months and then do nothing for three months.” These disclosures feel like pixie dust that allow me to feel less guilty about my own writing lulls, and I imagine they have a similar effect on other writers. By sharing the vulnerabilities of her own craft, it’s as if Boully gives writers forgiveness for theirs. The magic of Betwixt is not prescriptive, but subjective; Boully splays open her own torso and readers divine what they need to from the spill of her organs.
She gives me permission to write what I want to write, rather than what I think I’m supposed to write. In “On Writing and Witchcraft,” Boully twines her teenage self, casting spells to make a satanist love her, with her adult self, who is horrified at the exercises in creative writing craft books that ask students not to write what they want to, but to co-opt their trauma into writing:
I know I’m supposed to be talking about the craft of writers in this essay and not the craft of witches, but I want to do what I’m doing now, and I suppose that this is really what I’m trying to say about writing: it isn’t about what you are supposed to do but rather what you want to do, and that is why I have such a hard time with those writing manuals.
Boully extends this conversation in “On the EEO Genre Sheet” to include creative writing in the academy. She knows the definition of creative nonfiction she’s supposed to give in interviews for teaching positions, yet she doesn’t because of her “rebellious nature,” and chooses, instead, to face the inevitable attempt of the committee to “tame” her. She then tells an anecdote about one of her students feeling dejected after a professor told her that her poetic prose didn’t belong in the poetry classroom.
I, too, have been this student. I once turned in a packet of what I was calling “linked nonfiction prose poems” to a nonfiction workshop. The professor began by saying he didn’t know how to give me feedback because it wasn’t an essay. One student told me I was an unreliable narrator because the work felt so fictional. Another said I should dedicate a full page to explaining I could be a feminist and enjoy doing a male partner’s laundry because “poems move too quickly.” I left the workshop angry, determined to make the project work, and wishing Boully was my professor (don’t we all?).
Boully argues that the act of having to choose a genre for your writing, like having to choose your ethnicity on an EEO data sheet, is “essentially an act of bias.” Since the choices are predetermined, one has two choices: to conform to existing labels even if they don’t fit, or to select “Other” declaring an outcast status. She deepens this discussion by putting her own “mixed” heritage in conversation with her genre-bending writing:
I am more mixed than many, many people I know. My father grew up knowing only that he was half Cherokee, half white… My mother is half Thai, but she has curly hair, as do I, which leads me to think there must be something else lurking in there. In terms of what I write, it seems that my writing is also mixed. I am sometimes called a poet, sometimes an essayist, sometimes a lyric essayist, sometimes a prose poet… . I find these categorizations odd: I have never felt anything other than whole.
Whole. Complete. Someone—something—hybrid, mixed, betwixt-and-between, is still one. If Boully had a thesis, this would be it.
This hybridity is also reflected in the form of the essays in Betwixt. “Fragments” contains photocopies (recreations?) of poem-snippets Boully wrote by hand intermixed with discussions of failed love affairs. A former love told her: “No more talk of emotion. If you need to say love, I prefer you substitute it with pizza.” Boully heard what she wanted to: “Talk of emotion, say love. I pizza you.” Moments of humor like these arise when you least expect them to throughout Betwixt.
Other highlights include “Einstein on the Beach/Postmodernism/Electronic Beeps” and “On the Voyager Golden Records,” brief essays where Boully moves between pop culture, US history, and her own meditations about growing older and leaving her mark on a world so different than it was in the 70s and 80s. Much of this collection is about the passage of time: the seasons changing (or not), Boully’s laments about her childlessness and, later, her life as a mother, and how she’s matured from a child daydreaming about fluffy animals to an accomplished professor with a PhD.
But the passage of time is not always kind to Boully. She confesses a past eating disorder, a miscarriage, shooting pain from shingles, a boyfriend not named Butch who couldn’t make her orgasm, staying up all night to write a forty-page breakup poem by hand and then tearing up all the pages at dawn and casting the “poetry shards… into a cloud of monarchs flitting by.” The pages are as intimate as they are analytical; Boully is as bookish as she is worldly. By sharing these personal experience, the point Boully seems to be making is that the writing life is not just about putting words on a page, but observing, daydreaming, and feeling. She illustrates this in “The Page as Artifact”:
If you’re spending too much time on the page and not enough time outside the page, then you’ll need to find more time to find poetry… Poetry happens outside the page. Poetry is an instant. It strikes us oh-so-quickly, it makes us mourn. It happens when life too painfully or too blissfully filters through us. By the time we’ve acknowledged it, poetry has passed.
I needed this reminder. I poet by watching herons flap their silky wings. I poet over caprese sandwiches in a hammock with my lover. I poet while counting the rotten teeth of the sweet bodega tabby. And when I render these experiences into words, I need not worry about how they should look but rather how I want them to appear. I can almost hear Boully whispering in my ear: Yes, you need readers to love you enough to turn the page, but make them love you by telling it your way. Tell it your way even if it’s ugly, even if it doesn’t look like anything that’s been written before. You must tell it your way. You must. You must.