Betwixt-and-Between: Essays On the Writing Life by Jenny Boully / Coffee House Press / $16.95 / 140 pgs.
Jenny Boully’s fifth book, Betwixt and Between: Essays On the Writing Life, does not neatly assimilate into the tradition of writers writing about writing. Historically, these books blend memoir and how-to into quick, comprehensive, and illustrious reads, most famously shown in Stephen King’s On Writing, Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, and Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Betwixt-and-Between subverts this style by discussing her existence as writer, rather than the concrete task of writing itself. She lays no claim as to who the writer is; in fact, one of the themes that acts as an adhesive for this otherwise erratic collection is her outright cry against classification: “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 like anything other than whole.” In this effort, she does not wish to nail down a dictated method—she looks to show what she as a writer attempts: “Can you give to someone else what has been? That’s the task of the poet.”
A pained humor stretches throughout Betwixt, often used to emphasize an exposure on Dr. Boully’s part. She needles her earlier vain attempts at witticism and sentimentality, and in doing so, opens up cracks in which her vulnerability and shame leak out. When rehashing a conversation with a man who refused to love Boully to the extent she was willing to love him, she quoted him: “If you need to say love, I prefer you substitute that word with the word pizza.” A fabrication perhaps, but an apt one at that.
Boully’s imaginative entrances into discussions of writing highlight the elusiveness that propels Betwixt-and-Between. Her essays don’t carry obvious theses, or even a noted direction in some, but this does not lessen the work. The emotion, experience, or intended thought emerge like water leaking through a ceiling—slowly, cumulative, and present before one can identify the source.
Often, Boully used elongated metaphors to drive a select number of these essays so that they offer a two-fold understanding for the reader. In the essay, “The Art of Fiction”, Boully uses an imaginative man, Butch, as a placeholder for enticement, both for romance and the pursuit of writing. With this, she merges the intimacy and attraction that comes from finding a partner with the excitement and attachment of chasing an honest piece of writing, draft after draft.
I gather that what I’ve written so far is already known by Dr. Boully. Her understanding of her own experience is remarkable and unmatched by any memoir (if we choose to compare Betwixt to memoir) I’ve read in recent years. Her recollection is damaging, unfaltering, and concludes with subtle grace. Her voice is stringent and speaks with unquestionable assurance.
A prospective reader should consider their intentions when they approach this book. Although informative, it is not prescriptive; this is to the book’s favor. The advice and experience it embarks upon may be more useful (and certainly more evocative) than previous works written on writing.
Notwithstanding, Boully’s belief on writing as creation does not differ from what has previously been written: “How writing then differs from violent weather: in storms you have not where once you had; in writing you have where once you had not.” Yet, it is this inventive dissection of the subject that makes Betwixt-and-Between a necessary inclusion to the writers-on-writing canon.