|From the Editor
There are a few critics who disparage memoirs and personal essays, but they are a grumpy lot; perhaps they had a bad experience in a sensitivity group long ago. Fans of the form can’t get enough of it. We advertised this issue of Natural Bridge as a “primarily prose” issue, and even though I was delighted with the short stories we received and am especially delighted with the eight we have chosen for publication, I secretly wished the essay would win out numerically.
My wish came true. We offer twelve nonfiction gems here, which in their range make this issue of Natural Bridge a miniature anthology of the essay. We have a field report of a personal experience (Elizabeth Oness on childbirth classes), a science essay (B. A. St. Andrews on a little-known medical school ceremony), and two personal histories about the mind and body, one from a compulsive jogger (Roger Hart), the other from a former drinker (Robert H. Kneib). We have a parody (Brian Doyle on a text he found) and three transporting travel essays (Rhonda Zangwill in Prague, Lela Nargi in an Indian desert, Kathlene Postma in China and Turkey). Two memoirs explore the connection between past and present (Sybil Smith, Michael Sinclair).
Two other memoirs come from distinguished lions who are almost exact contemporaries. In Stelmark (1970), Harry Mark Petrakis introduced us to his Greek family and his multiethnic Chicago neighborhood of the 1930s and 1940s; his warm memoir here, “The Errol Flynn of Hyde Park,” is a new chapter in that story. The offering from A. E. Hotchner continues the tale told in King of the Hill (1972), the narrative of his boyhood in Depression-era St. Louis; “The Day I Fired Alan Ladd, and Other Wartime Adventures” (excerpts from a longer work in progress) brings us World War Two as Hotchner experienced it—not exactly as he had wanted to, but those dashed hopes became the basis of a writing career that has spanned more than half a century.
The process of submitting to a journal, of being read and accepted or rejected, is fraught with mystery, a mystery we try to reduce through contact with our submitters and through information at our website. But there is mystery at our end too, in the Natural Bridge office. How, we wonder, did this astonishing piece come into our hands? Why, in this final distillation, do three of the eight short stories take place in Michigan? Why are seven of the contributors from New York City (and four of those from Brooklyn)? Do the two from Portland know each other? (Brian Doyle, meet John Morrison.) How about the three from Iowa? And we could call the issue “New Stories Not from the South,” for only one contributor claims the South as home—a point in the perennial debate for those who argue that St. Louis is more northern and eastern in its affinities than southern, though cynics like to say the city has southern efficiency and northern charm.
Natural Bridge operates on an unusual schedule. Submissions occur twice a year, in the two-month periods before each semester (July-August and November-December). When the semester begins, the editor and staff of editorial assistants gather the submissions and climb into a very large barrel, which is sealed and shaken for four months. They come out pale, aged, and unsavory. But in their trembling hands they have a message, which they deliver before collapsing at your feet: eight short stories, twelve essays, fourteen poems.
The seven editorial assistants who were in that barrel created this issue. They read closely, discussed passionately, and edited gingerly. Almost all can point to one or more works that they “sponsored,” works that they shepherded from the moment of discovery in the submission boxes all the way into these pages. Amy Branch brought “Cultivation” to our attention, and Amy Debrecht brought us “Drowned Castle” and “How the Rain Leaves.” Linda DiMeo Lowman discovered “In the Playhouse of the Children,” “Into the Thar,” and “My Last Great Reading Binge.” John Hollaway found “Runners,” and he pulled “Big Mike” from his icy lake. Tamara Myers argued for “Recipe,” “Stew,” and “I Only Smoke in Prague”—a hearty meal followed by a cigarette. Jim Morice found “Dark Matter,” he spied the delights in “In Praise of Chickens,” and he was the go-to man for alternative titles: with apparently no effort at all he came up with “The Errol Flynn of Hyde Park” and “The Day I Fired Alan Ladd, and Other Wartime Adventures.”
Then there is editorial assistant Beth Mead, who saw many personal favorites fall short of consensus for publication, and who always let them go with grace, though there were some reports of mumbles under her breath. One story that Beth championed was lost to another magazine while we dithered, as will happen when a journal allows simultaneous submissions. That one was a favorite of mine too. I mourned its passing. I mourn it now more than ever. It should be in this issue. The story is Ayse Papatya Bucak’s “Once There Was a Girl Who Worked in a Coffee Shop.” Go read it. It’s in the autumn 2001 issue of Thema. Send your $8.00 check, payable to “Thema Literary Society,” to Box 8747, Metairie, LA 70011. You can get it at Gimbels, in other words. What is this, you ask–a Miracle on 34th Street?
No. Just a miracle on Natural Bridge Road.