Water Mask: New Nonfiction Book by Monica Devine, Reviewed by Dan Branch

I still haven’t taken a shower this rainy May morning. The coffee that I usually finish while it is still hot, has gone cold. Instead of making a new cup of Java, I stare out the window, watching heavy rain drops slam into a puddle on our driveway. Then I re-read “A Month Alone,” one of the chapters in Monica Devine’s Water Mask.

Like many writers, I mine memories to start an essay. After settling on one, I pound out words on my laptop, letting my mind drag the subject matter in and out of dead end streets until it stumbles onto a useful path. Then, I hit the computer’s delete key and restart the piece on more solid ground.

Devine starts “A Month Alone” with an admission that “[i]t has taken four whole days to settle into this vast New Mexican desert, to draw inward and compose stories of this life.” (Water Mask at 96). With carefully crafted language, she lets the readers know that “Enforced alone time requires I give the rug a good shake to start clean and free of dust—to see the world just as it is, without the pull of distractions and social strains.” (96). Rather than whine or apologize, she shares her secret. By walking the mountain desert while open to subtle sounds and beauty, Devine recognizes that “…the world just keeps rolling in at my feet and my attention glides there, highlighting otherwise ordinary time.” (97).

Devine admits that during the start of her New Mexico stay, “[t]he days slip by and still I have added no pages to my book, no poems to the page.” (97). If I was in Devine’s spot, I’d head over to a local liquor store for beer. Devine starts thinking about her husband. Then she starts planning on how to buy a kite. Afterwards, she realizes that thinking about the kite and other diversions is “[a] way to distract from the task at hand.” (98). “I boil water for tea and turn away from all the sensory input…Tie myself to a chair, so to speak. Begin work and stay there.” (98). She needs more.

In “A Month Alone,” Devine tries for clarity in her writing but ends up with opinions, judgements, gossip and to do lists. She finds that the “mind can so often be a prison, a trap, relegated to shifting from one banal thought to another…Junk arises.” (98). She remembers Raymond Carver’s advice: “Write beyond your story…Rather than write what you know, write what you don’t know.” (98). But Carver’s words couldn’t help her reach the writer’s place she sought.

Devine was unable to work out the problem using math, science, or even self-help writing books. By luck, she stepped out of her analytical mode of thinking by remembering “a rare and enchanting day at our cabin on the Copper River.” She was there that time in winter to spend a week writing. While walking into a forest clearing, she “stopped midfield, turned, and looked at her tracks in the snow.” After that strong emergence of memory, “[t]houghts shot through my mind like the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. A chapter in a difficult piece of fiction I was wrestling with unfolded without being reckoned…[f]or the rest of the day…images and memories burst forth like a flock of spruce grouse flushed from the trees. I carried paper and pencil with me in every room, including the bathroom. Scattered papers found themselves on the kitchen counter and the floor of the loft…Then the fire of transcendence burned out and there nothing left but smoke.” (99-100).

Shoot a mile Tennessee, I would have ended the essay with that beautiful “fire of transcendence” sentence. Devine did not. As the metaphorical smoke cleared, she went on to explore how “sudden bursts of memory and imagination burn through the banality of an uneventful day.” (100). Shoot a mile.

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