Under Pressure: Melissa Wiley

2020, Under Pressure

Skull Cathedral: A Vestigial Anatomy, Melissa Wiley

Melissa Wiley is the author of Skull Cathedral, a book interweaving thoughts on the body’s vestigial organs with autobiographical fragments, which won the 2019 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Contest and was judged by Paul Lisicky. She has also published the personal essay collection Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena. Were she more coordinated, she would have become a trapeze artist and joined the circus. As it is, she struggles to say what feels true but believes the struggling is what matters. Her work has appeared in DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, Waxwing, Nashville Review, American Literary Review, and others.

Here, Melissa Wiley discusses vestigial anatomy, the firehose of language and thought, and her writing routines.


Bina Ruchi Perino: How long did working on Skull Cathedral take, from conception to publication?

Melissa Wiley: All told, it took me almost two years to write. Though I tried to stay focused, I also wanted to approach each essay with as minimal of an agenda as possible, allowing any associations around a given vestigial organ or reflex to coalesce into a narrative without me forcing one into being. 

BRP: Where did you get your title inspiration from?

MW: The title comes from the essay concerning the sinuses, though I should probably add that this essay hardly mentions them explicitly, except for a paragraph. As I wrote this particular piece, these cavities were still always there, hovering in the back of my awareness, offering new layers of meaning for the sequence of events at hand. Without some level of consciousness of these hollow spaces, I don’t believe I could have written this essay as it stands, by which I mean I never could have connected certain threads of thought and veins of existence. When choosing a title for the collection as a whole, I realized all of the essays functioned in this way, with the vestigial organ or reflex informing the content rather than serving as the primary content itself. Throughout the book, the vestigial remnants operate much like negative space in a visual work of art, highlighting the subjects in the foreground, bringing them into focus.

But to go back to the sinuses for a moment, I found them particularly emblematic of the underlying meaning that I was trying to convey from so much disparate material. Just as you sometimes hear people say it’s the space in between the notes that creates the music, for me the cavities of the sinuses represented a space through which a sense of sacredness could pervade material reality. Thoughts and memories can elicit so much pain, especially when tied to loss or regret, and a lot of this book is about finding a way out of pain or a better way to live with it. So I found it deeply comforting to realize the source of so much of our capacity for anguish—all the thinking that goes on inside our head—itself houses empty spaces, which is to say breathing room in essence. The title is meant to speak to that potential for respite from a place as crowded our heads can be. Though I’m not religious, I also love the palpable hush that comes with stepping inside of holy spaces, with entering any room that has been designated for the purpose of communing with holiness alone. So the title Skull Cathedral ultimately serves as a way of reminding myself of the fact we contain all of the spiritual wisdom we need inside of our own bodies, however these bodies may appear, whatever their limitations.

BRP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

MW: I have to impose deadlines on myself in order to feel as if I’m making any progress. This feeling, if not the reality, seems to be key to moving past all the rejection that comes with submitting new material, with not being so weighed down by it. This book, for instance, I completed more than three years ago and submitted for as long, which of course has made its forthcoming publication through Autumn House that more meaningful.

I’ve also been writing for long enough now to appreciate that no project ever adheres to my own timeline, no matter how strictly I might keep to it. Creative flow has its own innate rhythm, though I think it’s important to push this a little, to make yourself write as often as possible, ideally every day. The act of writing even a single sentence works much like a muscle for me; it atrophies without being stretched or pushed toward some exertion. 

Setting deadlines is also often the only way to make myself move past the draft stage, to force myself to clean something up, placing myself in the position of a reader rather than a writer. This inevitably leads to excising masses of content, which is never the fun part for me. This purging of excess material amounts to more than half the process, maybe as much as eighty percent. Because I don’t have an agent or anyone else nudging me to keep producing more work, deadlines encourage me to engage with a piece to its finish, completing the cycle. That said, they can also convert what was once a little lighter-hearted affair into something more like a job, with some of its same tedium. So far, though, I see no way around this.

BRP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

MW: I work as a freelance editor and writer from a home office, so partly because it would be far too easy for me to stay in all day, especially during the Chicago winter, I try to walk five or six miles a day as well as practice some form of meditation, though I’m hardly ever successful with the latter. Any attempt to quiet my mind still seems extremely worthwhile to me. There has never not been a time when too much chatter, internally or externally, has not hindered me in some way, has not left me feeling depleted. So even if I can’t get out and walk as much as I would like on a given day, I try to at least watch my breathing for a few minutes, to take some conscious pauses. It’s not much, but it helps. I wish I could say I also cooked a full and lovely dinner or invited more variety into my life by practicing a craft like sewing or gardening to counteract all the wordplay, but I’m so lazy that way. At the end of a normal day, I usually just want to walk to my nearest falafel place, observing the expressions of all the faces in passing, before settling into a book.

BRP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

MW: Five years ago, I attended the Writer’s Hotel in NYC, and Richard Hoffman, who led the nonfiction workshop, likened reading my work to taking a drink from a firehose. In other words, I was overwhelming my potential readers, asking too much of them. I was just starting to write seriously then, and of course I laughed when he said this. All of the rest of the feedback I received in the workshop, though, carried the same message. I was burning to say so much—as I still am—but clearly I needed to learn to control the fire—or the hose, whatever—so people could absorb what I was putting out there without feeling lashed or burned or assaulted in some way. (Gosh, that sounds violent.) Rereading some of the pieces I wrote back then, though, I tend to wince a little, because now I can see what people meant. I like to think I’ve matured as a writer in the years since, that I’ve summoned more power over what used to be too many words attempting to convey too many emotions at once. No one wants to slake their thirst from a firehose, I realize, no matter how parched. I used to feel a little hurt by critique that fell along these lines, but now I get it.

BRP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

MW: I used to keep journals, but they have mostly fallen by the wayside. This has a lot to do with devoting more energy to putting the bulk of my writing into more cohesive shape. When I’m lucky enough to travel, though, I always take a physical journal along, and these can be fun for me to reread. Once in a great while, I will find myself writing on napkins if I’m somewhere (obviously somewhere with food) and a thought really strikes me, if it feels fresh and true, as if it has been waiting for this time and space to surface. I don’t believe every piece of writing needs to amount to a finished product by any means, but a large part of creativity consists in keeping the channels open. So maybe I should start journaling again.

BRP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

MW: I wish I had more nature to walk out into, but I live close to downtown Chicago, albeit near the lakefront, and am without a car to easily access more open spaces. That said, environment tends to make less of a difference for me than state of mind. As I was saying or meant to imply before, a quieter mind yields its own peace, and this is where most matters become clearer for me. Any real inspiration I’ve ever experienced has always felt less like inspiration and more like clarity, something along the lines of, “yes, that’s how it is—I can see it now.” 

Sometimes that clarity does come at night when I wake and am unable to fall back asleep, so long as my mind doesn’t grow too restive. Several months ago and before the pandemic disrupted so many aspects of our lives, I was walking back from a yoga class when I looked up into a webbing of bare tree limbs and knew all at once what I wanted my next creative project to be. I knew this without having been conscious of searching for a new project to begin with, especially because I’m currently involved with one that should keep me busy for the next year or so. Still I was grateful for the insight or clarity or inspiration, whose arrival I think must have been related to the calm that came with feeling physically tired and energized at the same time. I’ve felt so excited about having the chance to start writing this new book ever since.

BRP: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer?

MW: I would love to be a musician, mostly because music feels so much more visceral to me than writing. Music cuts through so much clutter—and literally moves people—like no other medium. I’ve played different instruments in the past, but none have ever felt like a natural path of expression; I really have to work at it before any smoothness or spontaneity arises. I’m a little better at drawing and painting, though given 24 hours in a museum, what I would really love to do would be to create a sculpture of some kind. I took one sculpture class in college, when we worked mostly in stone—I can only remember making a single, disembodied rib cage and my arm getting tired—so I would love to work with clay, with something softer. 

This is probably my naivete at work, but I like to imagine that the conscious mind can interfere less with creative flow when the hands are active, so if given such a limited timeframe to create something new, I would love to trust my hands more than my head, to try the experiment. This is a big part of the challenge with writing for me, keeping the mind alert without allowing it to obscure or override subtleties, without allowing it to shift to more exciting topics or erase contradictions. So I’d love to be able to delve more deeply into the hands’ intelligence, though opportunities for that already abound and I rarely take advantage. 

BRP: What are some things you learned from creating Skull Cathedral? How did this experience compare to creating Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena?

MW: Though the themes are similar, this one was created much more deliberately, with more focus and discipline. From my experience of writing both these volumes, I’ve learned you have nothing to lose from stating the truth as it reveals itself through your own subjective lens and personal set of experiences, though it’s always wise to be sensitive when writing about people other than yourself. Much is sometimes made of a memoirist’s inherent vulnerability, but I actually see no way in which any of us can escape this, in which we can ever ultimately protect ourselves, no matter what we put out there or keep ourselves from doing. Any sense of protection we may feel strikes me as only an illusion.

Whether we talk about it or not, we are all mortal animals forced to grapple with macrocosmic forces beyond our control as well as potentially thornier psychological ones. So I think we are only ever helped by other people—memoirists being only one example—who acknowledge these realities, who help us step out of our protective armor, who help transform our vulnerability into a source of beauty, maybe even consolation. It’s a lovely paradox that sometimes nothing makes us feel as whole as feeling completely defenseless, which is to say unapologetically human. I have felt this way many times when reading books detailing another person’s experience in such vivid detail that I’m left feeling something close to transcendence.

Because no one is immune to cataclysm or revelation, to tragedy or transformation, I would suggest that any memoirist’s writing process begin with a bold embrace of your humanness, while recognizing that you share this humanness with every other person on the planet who has ever lived and has yet to be born. You can always pull back from there, casting a more clinical eye over what you’ve written. You can always shape your explosively messy material into a form in which more restraint might better serve your readers. But start with some fire, I would say. I guess this is my old firehose at work, unwilling to be vanquished. Personally I would have made a lot more progress in a lot less time if I only had a steadier, gentler flow to begin with. So maybe fire isn’t everything. Maybe it’s just emotional honesty, being who you are at this particular point in time. I don’t really trust much else when it comes down to it.

BRP: If you could describe Skull Cathedral in three words, what would they be? Why?

MW: Useless messes matter. The reason I was attracted to the idea of writing about vestigial organs and reflexes—the reason the idea practically walloped me over the head one day—probably had a lot to do with feeling like a useless human being. Even while serving no real purpose on this planet, none at which I have been able to grasp anyway, I’m still alive and have to reckon with that aliveness. I have long passed the point of needing to find a reason as to why I’m here or why anything happens—so much of it senseless, especially concerning those who suffer and those who seem to get away with so much less of it— meaning I don’t care to fight the uselessness, to cling to a sense of purpose that would only be a personal belief anyway, not empirically valid. So for better or worse, I easily identify with these organs in my body that similarly seem of little to no use, that we have already evolved beyond as a species. 

The irony is perhaps that, while writing this book, these vestigial remnants offered real and meaningful import for my life, for how to keep living it without feeling particularly invested in a future, for how to feel more fully alive without the prospect of that life ever amounting to much of anything, without being able to ease much of anyone’s suffering. Through contemplating these few features of our anatomy, I think I came to more peace with the seeming anomie, even brutality, of so much of our existence. Uselessness may not mean anything in the way we might want it to, in the sense that a reason lurks behind it that will come clear at some point—I’m deeply distrustful of all teleological thinking—but for me any real meaning abides in the uncertainty. I have come to feel there is richness in not knowing, in the precariousness of life and its easy slippage into what we suppose to be its opposite. A wonder opens up when no other beliefs, or even hopes, cloud all the contradictions.

Order Skull Cathedral here!

Melissa Wiley

2018, NonFiction


7:45 am

The last day of my life, I tried walking into someone else’s. I tried but couldn’t gain access a couple hours after having sex with my husband, when my thighs gripped his hips as he slowed his rhythm. After clearing his throat, he told me to spread my knees wider across the mattress. Only earlier in the week I pulled a hamstring that resisted healing and preferred staying shredded, likely because it realized my life had nearly ended.

Since dying and surviving the experience, I have stopped waiting for life to become a man whose cock is always hardened. Since discovering the afterlife harbors no more hell than heaven, I have stopped envisioning an eternity spent beside someone on a bed with no box spring beneath it, a bed cloaked by gauzy curtains. Yet I can still see traces of its edges as a fly buzzes through a hole in a nearby window’s screen. The time there is always late morning, and I haven’t had my coffee. Even in paradise, I was always waiting for someone to fill my cup with something missing.

8:30 am

Yesterday morning, I drank my first cup with milk inside my kitchen as I waved goodbye to my husband. I bought my second at a shop I used to frequent until its manager left my life entirely, when he decided to take another position. I walked inside the shop one last time regardless, hoping for if hardly expecting salvation.

The last time I saw him, several months before this, he mentioned he was born with a broken collarbone. In response, I suggested his bones were like sea star arms to comfort him. All good things grow back in the end, I said without believing it. Before his first birthday, his clavicle had fused itself into oneness. As an adult, he looked a ripe, whole specimen.

I can no longer clearly see his face in what has become a receding memory of my life before this. I only know that months ago, as I stood in front of him with my coffee cooling, I pretended to trip over a fallen napkin by way of demonstrating the further bones that could be broken were he to trip across some swath of cotton. Life lived too far away from a bed without a box spring risked more injury, I was trying to warn him.

Seeing him a couple times a week for a couple years on end almost made the gauzy curtains seem an option. Looking at him alone, I often felt as if I was staining the bed sheets with honey already. I often caught myself swatting the fly that wasn’t buzzing around me. Life is nothing, however, if not leaving those you love yet hardly know on a fairly constant basis. That was true before I died and remains true after. There is no heaven where anyone wraps his legs around yours forever. Leaving the coffee shop after confronting his continued absence, skies began to darken into as black a blue as the bottom of the ocean.

10 am

I walked across the street and inside a florist’s, where daffodils nodded from their stems, nodding as if in agreement with something I hadn’t said but they heard regardless. For a couple minutes, I lazed among a world perennially verdant rather than return to my apartment, where I had left a manuscript that I was being paid to edit. Work, though, makes less difference as life’s end approaches, while plants feel necessary.

I bent over at my waist to smell hardly any scent from several purple succulents. The florist had arranged them inside a suitcase whose leather skin reticulated into a web of veins and arteries. She had made a vase of a suitcase dating from the 1960s, because the beauty of things so old they might be dying always enhances the lesser beauty of the living. As I stayed there bending and staring, I remembered how in this life I was so soon leaving there was once a suitcase that contained an organ, the smell of whose leather casing once suffused our kitchen.

For years, its aroma lingered near our oven after my dad carried it up a hill every Easter morning. When opened, the suitcase revealed an inflorescence of organ keys that always reminded me of teeth blotched with coffee stains. With my dad’s fingers pressing them, the teeth sounded church hymns referencing a reality beyond the senses.

10:20 am

Perhaps the ghost of his old suitcase inside the florist’s was my dead dad coming to express his sympathy for my own death approaching. Only I never went with him to Easter sunrise service when he asked me. I always thought there would be more time until there wasn’t. With each passing spring, I saw the suitcase folded near the oven, yet I never saw him play what lay inside it.

The organ was too heavy for me to ever lift, much less carry, even inside our kitchen. When I asked him how he managed it, he only smiled, saying he did some huffin’ and puffin’. I hated, though, to think of him as a steam engine. Even now, I want to say this explains why I never climbed the hill with him—to avoid witnessing what must have been some pain in his exertion—but I know it doesn’t.

Given his heft, given all the extra weight he carried in his abdomen, I’m still half convinced my dad sprouted wings at these moments when I was never with him. I’ve pictured the same of everyone I have loved, however, when some source of hurt approaches from which I can hardly shield them. I have done this in place of offering any real assistance. From the florist, I bought a small bouquet of pale and pink carnations.

10:30 am

As I walked back to my apartment, rain began falling in fat, hard droplets. Brown birds perched on browner branches, not seeming to care or notice my crumbling carnations. Back inside my unit as I untied my shoelaces, I confronted a portrait I painted years ago of my husband. It’s one of a series depicting him winged and naked, which once seemed to me the obvious course of human evolution. I have since revised this theory after dying and remaining the same person.

I was less in love with my husband while painting it than in search of a good subject. I was attempting to depict a timeless beloved, while he remains timely and complicated. In each of the portraits, he flies over a sepia ocean with a full erection. Perhaps a kinder person then, I may have painted him with wings as compensation for some part of me knowing he would someday also realize there is no hell or heaven. In this way, I may have been trying to help him survive his own life’s end. His chiseled, handsome face I made yet more chiseled and more handsome.

For weeks, birds have gathered half a block from my apartment. They flutter wings smaller than those I rendered in the portrait of my husband. They crowd inside a bathtub then shake their feathers free of any dampness before flying higher to rest amid plastic branches. For months, I’ve assumed this is a pet shop about to open, but no sign ever announces its opening to the public. No other animals ever make an appearance. The birds are apparently not for purchase.

2 pm

The woman whose manuscript I’m being paid to edit writes about color theory with remarkable acumen, something she herself has often told me. I edit her findings for grammar and spelling, though I quickly lose interest. Each time I reread what she has written, she states again at the beginning that all color is the mind’s invention. In her eyes as well as those of science, color has no objective existence.

The human retina house three cones, she mentions early in her thesis. Once light strikes them, neurotransmitters convince the brain to interpret the sensation as hues along the visible spectrum. Without any cones in the eye generating this illusion, the world would likely have no florists. A colorless world would have little reason for flower arrangements. No suitcases disemboweled of their organs would hold any purple succulents whose odor they diminish.

Of color blindness much has already been written, for which reason this manuscript explores its opposite, reporting on women born with four rather than three cones inside their retinas, women who as a result see millions more colors than the average. Science to date reveals less about their wider color spectrum and more about language’s inability to accommodate a vaster array of perception. These 12 percent of the world’s women have no way of knowing how much more colorful their world is than that belonging to the rest. They are also invariably mothers or daughters of colorblind men, many of whom live out their lives believing they see the world the same as everyone around them.

As I trimmed some of my client’s sentences while formatting her references, I realized love and color were no different. You could love someone who had vanished, yet no one would know how vividly the love still shown behind your eyelids. Someone could tell you all color is a phantasm, but that doesn’t make scarlet flowers turn pallid. You can look all you like at a suitcase holding an organ, but this doesn’t mean you hear its music.

3:45 pm

My pregnant sister called to say she’d gone to the gynecologist to hear her baby’s heartbeat. Only the gynecologist told her she heard nothing, which meant my sister was having her second miscarriage while caring for two young children. The boy whom she and I had both sensed the baby becoming would soon filter from her uterus the same as any ordinary menstruation. She said she felt too sad for a long discussion, but she wanted to let me know so I didn’t buy any clothes or toys for the baby.

Her version of heaven had been growing inside her then suddenly stopped breathing. For the past month, her heaven had made her vomit each morning and gain some weight in her belly. In six months’ time, hers may have existed outside her body, wearing little hats and jackets, which neurotransmitters would have overlaid with color defying reality. I told her how sorry I was while wondering if tomorrow she too might feel dead while living, knowing nothing better was coming.

5 pm

My husband called to ask what we were eating this evening. He called knowing I cook only pasta or scrambled eggs if I bother cooking anything other than layering meat and cheese for sandwiches. I suggested we meet at an Italian restaurant down the street from our building, and we agreed to 6:45, which would allow us both to work a little longer. I decided I would wait a day or so before telling him about my sister. Sensing my own life ending by then, I didn’t bother trying to picture a fetus dissolving out my sister’s body winged and naked.

6:30 pm

Walking to the restaurant while the sun dropped behind the skyscrapers as its color deepened from tangerine to red and bloody, I stooped to pull some strands of grass growing between the sidewalk cracks. I bent over, probably looking as four-legged as a family living in rural Turkey who were featured in a documentary I watched the previous evening. The family crouched the same as I was doing in place of walking upright. Neither the parents nor their children were capable of standing for more than a few moments without losing their balance. To the camera, the father expressed his fears of them being compared to monkeys.

As I watched the documentary, a bee had flown in through a hole in our window’s screen. My husband started swatting, but I insisted that staying frozen as corpses was our best option. He ran into the next room as I sat there motionless and shallowly breathing. While the Turkish family stood clinging onto chain-linked fences, the bee rested on my nose a moment. It traveled down to my lips as if tempting me to eat it. Its fuzzy body and fluttering wings made me ticklish. I closed my eyes, trying to convince myself I was only dreaming. When I couldn’t do this, I remembered that even when I opened my eyelids, the bee had no real color to its sting or body. Of everything that happened that last day of life still lived with a belief in a better one to come after, this felt most important, letting a bee trace the outline of my lips. Coming close to real pain rather than feeling the ache of something missing.

While we ate our platefuls of spaghetti and our waiter refilled our water glasses, I asked my husband if he remembered the bee last evening. He looked toward the restaurant’s windows and nodded. When I told him it had kissed my lips, he only shook his head, saying he didn’t believe me.

8 pm

Half a block from our apartment, my husband pointed at the birds inside what I was still unsure was a pet shop or wasn’t. Some lights were on, and a woman wearing a sweater with a cowl neck was sweeping the floor of fallen feathers. My husband tapped on the glass, when she waved us in. After we opened the door, the birds’ silence on the other side of the glass changed to screaming.

Most looked to be blue and yellow finches. Many were masturbating, using hard notches of plastic branches as phalluses that never went flaccid. Several had plucked some of their feathers from between their legs. They were all females, the woman practically shouted to be heard above their shrieking. She said they had grown aggressive because they wanted to be mating, something that her limited space prohibited because she had no room for their offspring.

She had rescued them all from an adoption agency and was planning to open this space as a form of community therapy, she explained while putting her broom away. She was also adopting several bunnies and wanted to provide pastries and coffee. People living in apartments without any pets, she added, could come and play with birds and bunnies gentler than humans.

Yet the finches’ needs seemed to me more basic than bridging the divide across species. As I looked at the birds pleasuring themselves with plastic, I wondered how she made her money to fund this project. After we left, my husband said he found her attractive. I too had noticed her beauty as well as a certain calm she radiated amid the finches’ screaming. Were my husband inclined to play with birds or bunnies, he might find his own land here of milk and honey.

8:30 pm

Inside our apartment, our bathroom ceiling was leaking. We would have to wait and call our handyman in the morning, I said, when my husband grew silent before mentioning that in the past few days I’d been smelling badly. I knew he said this now because the water falling from the ceiling angered him. For some time, though, I had been decaying. I had been dying for so long by then that I’d become inured to my own odor more than likely.

As the leak in the ceiling strengthened over the next hour, my husband began turning more against me. I had been the one to want to rent this cheap apartment, he shouted. I should be earning more money instead of staying home editing on a freelance basis. Our whole life would be drier now if only I lived a more normal existence. In response, I screamed instead of saying anything. I screamed while wondering if when he came close to me he smelled a suitcase organ, which was always a little musty. Perhaps inside me there also lay some latent music.

10:50 pm

After he came to bed with his hair wet and matted from the shower he takes each evening, he asked what I’m really doing while he goes to his office and I stay home and edit. I’m wrestling with color theory, I didn’t bother explaining. Only because I am not the daughter of a man with color blindness, I can see no more colors than the average.

In the darkness of our bedroom, all the world’s colors then dissolved into grayness. Shapes alone arrest the retinas after dusk descends. I closed my eyes and imagined a broken collarbone fusing itself into wholeness. The vision resembled the act of mating though was quickly finished, never to be repeated.

11:45 pm

Unable to fall asleep, I left our bed and walked inside our kitchen. I poured milk into a saucepan, turned on a burner and watched its blue flames surging. Never before have I drunk warm milk to put myself to bed, but this once I opened a jar of honey and began stirring an amber string into liquid begun bubbling. I yawned, my feet cold from the floorboards. After draining the cup to its bottom, I lay myself against a warm, familiar body. I lay awake for most of the evening while watching spring snowflakes begin to twitch before landing on the sidewalk and melting.

Melissa Wiley is the author of Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split Lip Press, 2017). Her creative nonfiction has also appeared in places like The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, Phoebe, Entropy, Waxwing, The Offing, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Juked, Noble / Gas Qtrly, and PANK. She lives in Chicago.