Writers

Meet Garet Lahvis, 2020 Oregon Literary Fellow

We’re thrilled to introduce the 2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients with individual features on our blog! Out-of-state judges spent several months evaluating the 400+ applications we received, and selected eleven writers and two publishers to receive grants of $3,500 each. For the first time, Literary Arts also awarded two Oregon Literary Career Fellowships of $10,000 each. The 2021 OLF applications will be posted in May 2020, and the deadline to apply will be in August 2020. All of the 2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients will be honored at the 2020 Oregon Book Awards Ceremony.

2020 Oregon Literary Fellowship Recipient
Garet Lahvis (he/him/his)

Category
Nonfiction

Bio
Garet Lahvis is a neuroscientist and worked for 30 years in the academic field and published over 40 scientific papers. His essay “NQR” was awarded the Curt Johnson Prose Award from december magazine.

Q&A with Literary Arts
What are your sources of inspiration?
I was a scientist for over thirty years. Inspiration often came from experiments. Something almost magical happens when you make a prediction and test it. You ask how the world works, then listen for its answer.  

But over the past decade, I’ve also found inspiration from the people who speak about what can’t be plotted on a graph, what comes from artists and activists who use their creativity, vulnerability, and clarity of mind, whatever they have, to get us thinking outside of our ruts. I’m inspired by the rousing prose of Toni Morrison, the quirky magical realism of George Saunders, the raw emotional conviction of Malcolm X, and, as I write this, the chilling public commentary of the movie Joker. They target the myths we cherish from oblique angles. 

Lastly, I’m inspired by the works of Michel Foucault, a philosopher. He writes about how our perception of the world is often a projection of what we chose to see. We think we have it figured out. That we don’t is terrifying and oddly hopeful. 

How would you describe your creative process?
My creative process means writing at least five days a week. Sometimes creativity shows up, usually in revision. I dread writing the first version of anything. It reads dull, full of itself, rarely to the point. If it cleans up, it stays. Otherwise, it’s off to the waste bin. 

Reading the night before helps. I’m a slow reader. Slow reader. I often read chapters twice. Books tend to become long-term relationships. I tend to write better in the morning if I wake up mulling over some feeling or phrase or word from the book. Mediation helps too. I should meditate more often. 

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship?
Validation. This fellowship says that I can write to a literary audience. My long career brings along a momentum to stay the course, much of it driven by a fear of change. This fellowship tells me it’s OK to tack to new bearings. For me, that’s exhilarating.     

What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a book and several essays about science as I have experienced it – not just the facts we’ve learned – but the vast amount we choose to ignore. Scientists maintain a disciplined disregard for what we can’t understand, whether it is how mixtures of pollutants affect our health or how the vast inner worlds experienced by non-human animals affect our experiments.

My writings explore the emptiness of this dead space: the vacuous bag that modern society is left holding between the uncertainty of science and the certainty of its rhetoric, the narrowness of an experiment and the vast expanse of life, the focus of science on the measurable and our appetite for some sense of meaning. 

What advice do you have for future applicants?
Don’t give up. When your writing makes you feel uncomfortable, explore it. Pay attention to the details in your life that trigger thoughts and emotions you’d rather disregard. They’ve got a message for you. 

Excerpt from work in progress
Along the westward shores of Scotland and Ireland, people live within a world touched hard by latitudes that oscillate between long summer days and a dark, wet world, once glimpsed beyond the glow of burning peat. Long ago, beneath roofs of thatched straw, they kept warm huddled with their cows, sleeping on the dirt floors of low stone houses. Cairns along the roadside marked where an uncle died or where pallbearers momentarily eased his casket. Fishermen worked their lines from currachs, shallow vessels made of cowhides sewn together and stretched over wooden ribs. They shouldered their catch in wicker creels and the saltwater from the fish scales dripped onto their wet pants. The membranes between human and cow, land and sea, life and death, were minimal.

Folklore from the Outer Hebrides and the Shetlands told of stories our modern society might easily reject, stories of selchies, which we call North Atlantic grey seals and with whom they shared their lives. The oldest lore tells of female seals who shed their skin on the coast to transform into beautiful women. If a wandering fisherman or crofter found a skin, he could marry the selchie. She’d live with him in his home and join his community, hiding her finlike feet beneath long dresses. If she were to fall out of love and locate her skin, she could slip back inside and dip down below the ocean waves again.

More recent tales bear witness to seals and people still surviving together — of a seal that nursed a lost boy, of another seal that guided home five men in a wayward currach, of men who killed seals and dropped stone dead within the year. To the skeptical eye of modern science, these stories are no more than fancy. But I wonder if the Celts understood a connection we can no longer see, wisdom of an ancient world of linkages, of skin slipped and taxonomical boundaries breached, where we might find a loose stitch between our actions and a child who doesn’t return our gaze, rocking back and forth before his stacked blocks.

Our mythology is that eating organic food means that our own wastes can’t plumb their way back to our dinner table. We believe that if we recycle our grocery bags and plastic bottles, these actions somehow negate the reality that disposables are made by paper pulp mills, oil refineries, and plastics companies, each with their own waste streams. We believe that “sustainable” means pristine. We believe that the exhaust from a jet engine or an automobile, the wear of a rubber tire, the flame retardant in a discarded set of pajamas or the weed killer sprayed on the lawn will somehow never gain access to the inside of a milk carton. Our myth is that our own wastes stay put, that they don’t conduit back and penetrate our shrink-wrapped package of chicken cutlets stacked so neatly on a Styrofoam plate. The truth is, our world is burrowed and infused, refracted and permeated. Our coastlines are breached.

Judge’s Comments
“In this essay, Lahvis explores the complexities and limitations of science through a vivid depiction of a child undergoing observation at an autism clinic. Lahvis’s writing has an engaging clarity and specificity that draws us into his laboratory setting, and he alternates these descriptive passages with sophisticated reflections on the history of autism, his past research, and larger questions about the certainty we expect from science. ‘Science is more like a prism,’ he writes, ‘refracting our results into a spectrum of new questions.’ These reflections give Lahvis’s depiction of a child’s autism diagnosis a fascinating philosophical frame and make the essay a compelling meditation on the ‘swirl of uncertainty’ that surrounds scientific inquiry. ” – Aatif Rashid