Mapping "A Lesson"
Essay by Katerina Ivanov Prado, in Brevity Magazine
“A Lesson” by Katerina Ivanov Prado came out September 13th in Brevity’s newest issue. (It will be hard to follow this newsletter without having read the essay). As most of you probably know, Brevity is a literary space for brief nonfiction that stays within the 750 word mark. That level of tightness against our expectation of essay depth is always compelling to me.
Katerina Ivanov Prado’s multi-genre work has been published in the Florida Review, Passages North, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Pinch, Joyland, The Rumpus and others. She has won the John Weston Award for Fiction, the AWP Intro Journals Award, The Pinch Nonfiction Literary Award and the Florida Review Nonfiction Editors’ Award. She teaches writing in Tucson and is working on a novel.
The full map of “A Lesson” by Katerina Ivanov Prado:
In “The Lesson,” the layering is both disarming and surprising. I started this map trying to figure out paragraph one.
Paragraph one is a great and obvious place to start for any mapmaker. (I’m looking at you).
In paragraph one, we’re introduced to the idea of learning to cook as synonymous with learning (kitchen) knife skills, an immediate cause for tension. Not in the Chekhov’s gun sort of way, but anytime a weapon is introduced, especially one that nicks the narrator, we have tension. I find myself often begging querying writers to please start in the tension. “The Lesson” is a great example, and yet it also starts in the future of the essay, hinging on a past we’ll discover. There are so many ways to write about food and cooking and Ivanov Prado’s direct study of dicing in the first paragraph tells us to look for the knife, in the kitchen, with the aromatics.
The opening of this essay reminded me of a conversation in workshop, where my friend Colleen was discussing being gifted a knife by a former boyfriend. (I will butcher her brilliance here, so bear with me). She ran a local food and wine magazine in a previous life and explained to the workshop that if you’re ever gifted a knife it’s bad luck, and the knife will turn on one of its handlers, typically the recipient.
I always include personal connections in my maps. Often when I’m trying to draft my own work, mapping someone else’s work links ideas, memories, and research for me in a way I could never navigate without that influence.
Being reminded of Colleen’s knife story, I wanted to Google. I couldn’t really find the history of this superstition anywhere with a quick search, but apparently when gifting a knife, you must also gift a coin (a penny!) that the recipient can give back immediately so the knife is kept at bay due to “symbolic payment.” Otherwise, the knife will “sever the bonds of the relationship.” Other fun knife superstitions to use as writing prompts can be found here.
Asides in maps, as in essays, are important to the ways our brains work—in metaphor. Those connections you’re making while reading, write them down.
Use those connections that only you can make to review more books you love. Use them to create layered conversations within your own essays. This automatically creates another textural layer. This is how we create a literary landscape, we build on and care for what’s come before. I firmly believe every piece of writing (and probably every artistic act) can conjure another.
(Here’s the knife memory aside in the map).
Later in the essay Ivanov Prado says, “I always took the knife from him willingly.” It is clear in the essay that X wields his control through “care,” through cooking, and cooking is really a metaphor for cutting. Therefore, his control is directly related to the knife, which she only sometimes “correctly” uses, and although he’s not around any longer at the start of the essay—it’s an essay of recollection, the knife still nicks at the thought of him. Let the record show, no coins were exchanged.
The opening paragraph ends with the idea of memory as carpenter ants—at first this felt like a reach to me. In trying to figure out why it took me out of the essay, I decided maybe the image was realizing that carpenter ants are both familiar, yet intrusive. We understand that they’re an expected part of a home landscape in certain regions, but still uninvited. Since they’re intrusive, they’re a strong image to enact the symbolism for the memories of an ex (in both the intrusive-thoughts way, but also as an uncontrollable environmental force), but I couldn’t figure out why them and why there in the essay.
Anything that takes you out of an essay, or surprises / startles you is a good thing to try to map—it’s so rarely purposeless.
Where does the image of ant’s “swarming” get us? To care. A sneaky transition separated by white space. I’m fascinated by what happens in white space, what we lose and what we gain in leaping or lingering, waiting or pausing. Both the swarming and the care feel overwhelming.
We’re already setup for tension with the ants, the swarming, the nicking of the knife. With the immediate tension, the question in the second paragraph about X’s “care” becomes: Is an essay proof you can curate tension while speaking good on someone? We know he’s dangerous, but how do we know?
This question of danger in essays is maybe a question of empathy (and sympathy): how much emotion can you evoke in a reader with truth, and how is it done? The craft of creating danger on the page, tension, disarmament is a skill that requires knowing how elements are working together. In this essay, images, symbols, and introductions are all playing a part. The other question is how close (as in proximity) must we be (or have been) to this danger or something similar to feel the levels of tension a writer wants to provoke? This Between the Covers episode with Natalie Diaz has some insights on empathy that I go back and forth on regularly.
I’m not necessarily worried for the narrator here because I know from paragraph one that X is no longer in the picture, but secondhand worry is still justified. She crafts this danger and subsequent worry in a few different ways. The repeated red throughout the essay is the first: “stewed tomatoes, the color of brick, rust smears, bright and bloody, chicken thigh, taste buds, tartness, milk blood, mouth, tongue.” Some of these aren’t even red-red, but in my mind they can’t escape the category. This color repetition furthers the unsettling feeling.
I want to look at the “bright and bloody” reference specifically that Ivanov Prado uses when describing a fish meal X cooks for her in the next few paragraphs.
One time a colleague was making a broadside for a poem about gutting a fish and I said, maybe the bass needs to be more bloody since the poem feels raw and gutsy. The writer responded something along the lines of, “fish don’t bleed.”
This isn’t totally true in the sense that they do in fact bleed, but most fish you buy in a grocery store have been bled already. So, the “bright and bloody” reference to the fish here could be imagined by the narrator, which almost makes the image worse. To imagine blood rather than really witness it sets the disturbing tone of this elaborate dinner and creates an anxious delay, causing the reader to wait for the next hot bad thing. Then, her tongue goes numb. The meat feels strange, but she tells X it’s one of his “greatest hits” anyway.
Here’s a bloody meat reddit thread for your enjoyment. A movie buff reading this might be able to connect something here to movie scenes where characters imagine blood, but are actually visualizing a scene that doesn’t (yet) exist. This would be a fascinating essay of its own, right?—a look into imagined horror within cinema rather than experienced horror. I’m sure it could be done with books too.
After X cooks this fish dinner, the narrator says, “This is like a study in color composition, completely balanced.” META-ESSAY TIME. So. is. the. essay. She’s pointing out her wit and need to please with this quote to X, while pointing us back to her essay and its collection of reds—study the colors to get at the gnawing unease. It is genius.
I don’t always look at color specifically when I’m mapping, but I ALWAYS look for repetition.
Through a red, “rust smears and crushed insect wings” we return to the image of swarming (from paragraph one, the image of carpenter ants). The “rust smears” image comes at the end of paragraphs two and three about X’s “specialty care.” He makes a joke in this paragraph about the narrator getting “scurvy, like a sailor” without his nurturing. Another image that’s like, but why? This is nonfiction so we can believe X said it. It’s also a joke used to show intimacy between them.
I looked up “scurvy” (truly thinking only of Pirates of the Caribbean and the octopus-beard-guy covered in mollusks) and no joke, this is the Google definition, “a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, characterized by swollen bleeding gums and THE OPENING OF PREVIOUSLY HEALED WOUNDS, which particularly affected poorly nourished sailors until the end of the 18th century.”
Without his “care” she is deemed “poorly nourished and/or weak.” My initial “why” is answered with a perfect image from the definition, “the opening of previously healed wounds,” calling us to moments we’ve read of emotional wounds with X, but also to the narrator’s future—an image that reaches beyond the space and time of the essay and points to the current-narrator (future-narrator) who is “healed.” For the essay, she has “opened previously healed wounds.”
Also, right after the “rust smear” we get X saying, “Stop moving, you’re attracting them” about mosquitos. Now, you’re probably not thinking, wow, Ivanov Prado has a thing for bugs, but I AM. I wrote BUGS really bold at the top of the map page. Let me try to explain why this felt like the biggest mic drop of the essay.
What are bugs? A nuisance. (Sorry, etymologists.) We aim to “catch” them. Sometimes we aim to “lure” them. What’s a way someone can be seen as or made weak? They stop fighting, we get them to stop fighting. They stop moving, we force them to stop moving. “Stop moving” as a way to make the narrator a target. The target of carpenter ants, mosquitos, X. There is something here about being “trapped.” In the beginning, carpenter ants are free to move, but they are intrusive, overwhelming, giving the narrator the same sensation through memory as being trapped by X.
We see a turn in X after this quick dialogue; she ends the next paragraph with “he’d say, want to try it again, in a way that never felt like a question.” A trap in an instruction made to feel like a question. In the paragraph after, she uses the phrasing “the thing that drew him to me” (where do we use this sort of phrase? Bugs!). As Dr. Frankenstein would say, “it’s alive!” Every single phrase counts here.
Okay, okay, you’re probably like, this is too meta, BUT IT GETS BETTER. X has implied the narrator’s weakness and wounds through an intimate inside joke (scurvy). He has told her to stop moving (something that seems so innocuous, a quick piece of advice, but becomes such a warning sign in the essay when paired with the bug references). He has “trapped” her into HIS how of doing things. The danger is getting closer, until THE TURN (dramatic sounds!)
He says, “Who left the fucking screen open? The mosquitos are eating me alive.”
And she responds, “Maybe you should try moving less.”
“…turning his own words against him, THAT “thin ghost of control.”
Now normally, I would say that a turn like this in the penultimate paragraph of an essay irks me, but this turn has been arriving in every single paragraph we’ve read. In this simple exchange, we see the collapsing of the knife’s power alongside X’s power, succumbed to the narrator’s words (the power of words!) rather than her knife skills he so often controls. We can call back to all the bug imagery that started in paragraph one and has been turned here back onto him. We see, after all of his phrases of correction like, “instructional, correction, and taught” that she is instructing.
This is the first piece of instruction that comes from the narrator’s mouth in the essay. Look for these one-offs when you map—they’re clues.
Finally, we also get the release of the tension that’s been building in this relationship throughout.
The essay, after this swift kick, ends with two lines I love. “Angle the exposed cuts away from me,”—we see a narrator that is healed, that no longer allows the knife or X’s control. In fact, she points it away. And “My eyes are dry” which implies the existence of every single time they were not when interacting with X. It’s another moment of time outside the essay’s frame. A peek beyond the 750 word container. We never see her cry in this essay, but in this final line, we get the existence of those moments. Essays are always born with tentacles.
Because of how sentences are layered in this essay, that + symbolism is where this map yarned out from my brain. It’s an essay that proves the power of talisman as repeated metaphors in writing: reds, knives, bugs. I would love to know what came first here—an image or the scant dialogue Ivanov Prado was working with from the relationship. She could have chosen anything they ever said to each other, but these pieces feel exact, specific.
A few elements dealing in sentences that I look for when I’m mapping:
moments of declaration (like this ending in “A Lesson”)
questions when there are none previously
phrases that mean one thing in one section and are turned in another (like this last dialogue turn in “A Lesson”)
phrases that are the same except one or two words are changed
interruptions in the essay’s usual form, and interruption in general
everyday colloquial phrasing
definitive words like always or never (she always took the knife willingly) that for me, immediately imply breaking of that always or never
the starting of paragraphs (here: I, he, he, stop, it, he, I, he, this, he, it, we, what, I, after, who, maybe, I, I)—doesn’t this strangely work as a shortened version of this essay?
the ending of paragraphs (I love a leap or a witty transition, and essayists are MASTERS of this)—Ivanov Prado, gems: “swarming, he fussed over me, crushed insect wings, you’re attracting them, how to tenderize steak, never felt like a question, frustrated him most, striking against the ceramic, completely balanced, greatest hits, capable of something good, almost unbearable, I swallowed, forgotten it was there, he smacked himself, eating me alive, try moving less, a thin ghost of control, my eyes stay dry” LIKE WHAT, THAT is an artist at work.
If you want to further study the sentence, here are a few recommendations:
Matt Bell’s newsletter, “Writing Exercises”
Assay Journal’s incredible craft essay and syllabus bank
This craft essay on opening lines by Laura Spence-Ash in Craft Literary
Eula Biss’ deconstruction of Didion’s Goodbye to All That in Fourth Genre
This craft essay “first line versus last line” by Albert Liau in Craft Literary
Particularly with flash essays, but I would argue for any strong essayist, there’s purpose in every sentence. Mapping and annotating both help me dig towards a direction for each seemingly trivial sentence until I can recognize a whole. The truth about mapping though is that it involves two things: noticing and wondering. There is no “right way”—what you notice, and what you wonder leads you to the next leap, draw an arrow (as you can see, there are 19+ here) and follow your leads.
The Tools for this map (sorry, I linked the devil that is Amazon):
Leuchtturm1917 B5, dotted, softcover notebook | I cannot use anything else.
Pilot G-2, .38 | If it’s not ultra fine, I refuse.
About Cassie Mannes Murray:
Cassie Mannes Murray is a literary agent at Howland Literary, where she started from the bottom with a cold email and a dream, and a publicist at Mindbuck Media. Before she weaseled her way into publishing, she produced a robust blog called Books & Bowel Movements, and taught public school. For writing, she has an MFA in creative nonfiction, has received a notable in Best American Essays 2020, and a Pushcart Prize nom. Her work has been featured in The Rumpus, Story Quarterly, Passages North, Hobart, Joyland, Slice Magazine, and Fugue. She’s married to a non-writing gamer, and they live with the fireflies in North Carolina where their dog chases street chickens.