To Grow a Whisper: Matt Sailor

I won’t forget the first time I met Matt Sailor, my fourth offering in “To Grow a Whisper,” my series of literary spotlights devoted to (mostly) emerging writers. I had interacted with him a little on Twitter, but it wasn’t until AWP in Seattle that we met in person while standing in line to receive our entrance badges. Even though I was basically an acquaintance at that point, he still (for whatever reason) came to my reading when there would have been so many other lectures and readings he could have attended. It meant a great deal to me (especially considering he isn’t a poet as far as I know.) It was then I knew he was a quietly, exceptionally sincere person. That sincerity is what makes Sailor such a strong writer. Talent, sharp wit, and imagination (yes, he has those things too) can only go so far if the author doesn’t give themselves over to a reader. When Sailor writes it’s a wonder there is anything left of him.

Sailor knows fiction. He earned his MFA in fiction, he is an associate editor at NANO Fiction, and he edits fiction over at The Mondegreen. And maybe you’ve heard of a thing called the National Endowment for the Arts? They awarded him a fellowship in 2014 for his novel in progress. So I reiterate, Sailor knows fiction (including flash fiction and science fiction – no seriously, he can talk Star Trek for days.)

From a tenderly haunting story about memory and marriage to an ekphrastic piece on what we can’t look away from, Sailor creates fictional characters with flaws enough to make them real but virtues enough to keep them from being villains. And there’s something in that flawed, hurt humanity that makes the reader want to forgive these people, take care of them, which for me is more valuable than all the clever writing in the world. Sailor’s characters make me more tender, more human, and isn’t that one of the most difficult, most important functions of literature?

If I describe Sailor’s fiction as emotionally real, then the only thing I can say about his series, “Great Moments In Cinematic Drinking,” is that it’s unreal. Sailor mixes movies and memoir with a (pop) culturally perceptive eye to create moving essays of unmatched power. How can a writer be so vulnerable, so honest and open, without simply disappearing? How does Sailor, time after time, break himself further and farther than so many writers out there? As I said, unreal.

From GMICD: The Shining

“We are the people we hurt.”

From GMICD: Lost in Translation

“I always considered it a mark of pride, a sort of superpower, this ability to put someone behind you and forget that you’d ever cared about them. What you learn, the more you try, is that the break is never clean.”

 From GMICD: Tommy

“In the past, I’ve talked about this night as an outrage: my grandfather, suffering in the hospital, while my father carted us off and kept us in the dark…But I don’t think this way anymore. I think that’s me, trying to construct a version of my past that’s easier to live with…That night didn’t contribute to my idea of my father as irredeemable, so I had to throw it out. You can say a lot of things about my father, and one of the best (and, maybe, worst) is that he knows how to have fun. The truth is that I had fun that night. I wasn’t thinking about my grandfather, about death. My father gave me a gift…He sheltered me. He kept me safe. He put his hands over my ears, told me to close my eyes, and held me tight against his chest.”

I don’t think I’ve made it through any of this series without tearing up. I have read all fifteen pieces (and counting) and each time I am brought wholly into myself, my past regrets, my anger. Moments of grief. I am pained by these pieces the way the body is pained as it grows. But there is no fear here. There’s comfort and beauty in these essays, a way to navigate the past toward a bright future.

From GMICD: Live and Let Die

“It took me even longer to begin to understand who I really am. And only just now am I beginning to appreciate how hard it is, how much work it actually takes just to be yourself.”

It is hard work to know yourself, to be yourself. Lucky for me I find myself standing next to Sailor’s work like I once stood by him in Seattle, and all I can think is how wonderful a time I’m going to have.

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