John Steinbeck signed his books with a drawing of a plump pig with tiny wings. Below the drawing he would write the word Pigasus, accompanied by the Latin motto ad astra per alia porci—“to the stars on the wings of a pig.”
In Steinbeck’s own words, the Pigasus symbolized the writer as “a lumbering soul but trying to fly,” with “not enough wingspread but plenty of intention.” Steinbeck’s wife Elaine added that “man must try to attain the heavens even though his equipment be meager.”
I joined the staff of Inscape a year and a half ago. In the first few weeks of the semester, we were trained in the art of recognizing good literature—with a capital L. We read great poetry and great prose, and we discussed what was so great about it. We set lofty ideals, and we committed ourselves to accept nothing but the best in our journal.
A few weeks later, piles of student essays, poems, and short stories began streaming into our Inscape inbox. I eagerly plunged into a tall stack of personal essays, in search of the polished prose and evocative imagery I had encountered while reading The Best American Essays 2008 a couple weeks before. I searched the pile for another knee-slapping account of a Jew growing a Hitler mustache or another touching tribute to Otis Redding’s soulful performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. But I didn’t find those things, at least not right away.
I remember telling Brent Rowland, then-chief editor of Inscape, how frustrated I was that so many writers were turning in pieces that clearly fell short of my literary standards.
Brent listened, and then he said something like, “You know, that doesn’t bother me at all. I’m just happy people are writing.”
Since then I’ve had some time to think about what he said, and I’ve determined that we humans are really just a bunch of pigs—pigs with tiny wings. We’re soft and we’re vulnerable, and too often we’re content to waste time rolling around in the mud because we think that we can’t get out—if mud is what we’re born into, then mud must be what we’re made for.
When we write, however, we start flapping our wings. And although our wings may not be that great—and certainly our bodies are much too large—at least we’re struggling to get up out of the mud. We’re shooting for the heavens, even if our equipment doesn’t seem fit for the job.
I am grateful for all the words that have been sent to us, and all those that are to come, no matter how inadequate they may seem to their writers or anyone else—because we just never know when one of us, despite our lumbering mass, is going to take off and write that poem or that essay that gets us all to see there’s a world outside of us, a world above the mess of the sty.
I remember reading words and ideas—from that first stack of submissions and others like it—that have stuck with me. I remember reading an essay about a girl who confessed to obsessively taking and collecting pictures, and since that day I haven’t taken a picture without first asking myself why and thinking of her.
And I remember one story—you’ll find it in this journal if you keep reading, so don’t click away—about a Uruguayan woman and the swarm of bees that reminded her she was alone. When I read it, I was less alone.
I’ve begun to look up and see that there are a lot of people around me who are not afraid to flex their wings, to work every muscle in their plump porcine bodies to get that bulk of theirs off the ground and flying.
Inscape may not be an anthology of this year’s best American essays. But it is a journal of literature: of writing that aspires to show us there’s more to life than circumstances as they are. The pieces in this journal do not hesitate to acknowledge the mud we’re all familiar with—you’ll read of prostitution, of sickness, of genocide, of wasp and bee stings, of Nazis, of drug abuse—but in the process, these pieces document the beauty and the humor and the wonder of our mutual struggle to rise above it all.
As Inscape’s chief editor this year, I join with Brent in saying, “I’m just happy people are writing.”
I hope Steinbeck won’t mind that we’ve chosen to adopt the symbol of the Pigasus for this year’s issue of Inscape. I hope he’d smile to see our own version of the flying pig in the pages of this year’s journal and on this website—after all, we too are just trying to get off the ground.
Ad astra per alia porci.
The Tightrope Dancer by Shertok Samyak
Mothers by Kylan Rice
dialysis by Kylan Rice
Vashchenko’s House, Last Summer by Danielle Chelom Leavitt
Something in the Center by Dallin Bruun
Sky Woman by Rob Skidmore
Stephen Tuttle with Inscape
An Innumerable Company by Paige Crosland Anderson
Smith by Paige Crosland Anderson
View from the office window by Christine Armbruster
Details of a city: cigarettes with the same lipstick stain and used mortar shells, newly decorated and sold as souvenirs by Christine Armbruster
Wedding People by Ashley mae Hoiland
Their Sleeping Dust by Paige Crosland Anderson
Wanderer by Bryan Hutchison
Scattered at the Time by Paige Crosland Anderson
Done for Their Fathers by Paige Crosland Anderson
Beavers by Paige Crosland Anderson
Next door neighbors with different intentions by Christine Armbruster
After all, we are just humans by Christine Armbruster
Milne by Paige Crosland Anderson
Hazards of Love by Hannah Hillam
Sometimes things are too uniform. We forget that there are individuals within these identical rooms, that each headstone although the same were once different people. Sometimes large numbers turn into just that, a number. by Christine Armbruster
Linton by Christine Armbruster
Genessee by Ashley mae Hoiland
Interior of a Home, seen from the outside looking in by Christine Armbruster