‘Avoid the Day’

In his new nonfiction book, Jay Kirk writes about a mystery that involves Penn faculty, staff, and the Libraries.

Professor sitting outside with trees and a metal trailer behind him.
Jay Kirk, a lecturer in Penn's Creative Writing Program, just had a new book published, "Avoid the Day: A New Nonfiction in Two Movements." (Image: Julie Diana)

Pursuing the mystery of a missing music manuscript has been an eight-year odyssey that took Penn lecturer Jay Kirk from Vermont to Europe to the Arctic Circle, with Philadelphia at the center of the search. 

Released this week by publisher HarperCollins, “Avoid the Day: A New Nonfiction in Two Movements” is the second book by Kirk, who has been teaching nonfiction creative writing in the School of Arts & Sciences for 15 years. He has been a writer primarily for magazines, with long-form narratives in publications including Harpers, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine.

Avoid the Day a New Nonfiction in Two Movements Jay Kirk

Kirk first heard about the music manuscript in a pre-concert talk at the Kimmel Center by Richard Wernick, Penn music professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. Wernick described the disappearance of the signed original music manuscript by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók of his “Streichquartett No. 3,” or “Third String Quartet,” which debuted in Philadelphia in 1928.

A key player in the mystery is Otto Albrecht, who searched for the manuscript for much of his career. A Penn professor and music bibliographer, Albrecht was Penn’s first music librarian, and the music library, which holds his archives, is named in his honor. Also making appearances in the book are several now-emeritus Penn music faculty, including Wernick, George Crumb, and Lawrence Bernstein.

Kirk conducted most of his research in the Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, assisted by Penn students on fellowships from Kelly Writers House

“So much takes place at Penn, and the book has so many Penn characters,” says Kirk. “Even though it is set in Transylvania and the North Pole, it is very much a Penn book.” 

Kirk often teaches the course Narrative Nonfiction: The Art of Experience in the English Department’s Creative Writing Program , although last year he created an experimental nonfiction publication, Xfic, through a new course, Advanced Nonfiction Writing

“Jay Kirk is a brilliant teacher of writing because he deeply senses that learners learn best when the do what they are talking about. Jay’s students do things and discover the world of the writer while being a writer," says Al Filreis, the Kelly Family Professor of English and the faculty director of Kelly Writers House.

“Avoid the Day” is described as a grief memoir, a detective story, an adventure tale, a mystery, and a work of gonzo journalism, delving into Kirks’ relationship with his dying father while he seeks the truth about Bartók, his music, and his manuscript.  

Penn Today spoke with Kirk, winner of a 2017 Whiting Award, and a 2005 Pew Fellowship in the Arts, about the new nonfiction novel and his thoughts on writing and teaching. 

How does your teaching at Penn influence your writing and vice versa?

It is no exaggeration at all to say that teaching changed my writing because I was required to get up in front of a classroom and explain how to go about this thing. A lot of choices I made in composing and writing the book came out of lines of inquiry I’ve had about writing itself and writing about reality and how we convert experience through narrative. How does narrative work? How does storytelling work? How does storytelling generate meaning? How do you represent experience? I decided to completely commit myself to that type of exploration.

I really do believe that storytelling is the most powerful way to get across meaning and what it means to exist. Scene, character, motives--I think they are very fundamental. I think there are very few rules in writing. I’m always stunned at how many students come through my classroom and have been told by high school teachers that adverbs are bad. How can a whole part of speech be bad? 

I try to stay away from rules, but I do focus on things that seem to be fundamentally always true, like motives. You can’t go through life without wanting something. Think about what you really want, and that perception defines character. I want the students to really pay attention to their own voices and their own way of perceiving reality and to honor that during the semester. And not worry about censoring themselves about what they should be thinking but instead how do they actually do things and then document that. To write with more immediacy in the world.

I tell students, You’re going to go out into the world and you’re going to have an experience and then you’re going to write about it. You are going to document it. You’re setting yourself up on a little adventure and you have no idea what is going to happen. I personally find the uncertainty is tremendously fun, if you let it be, if you recognize that it’s a kind of game, just being uncertain in the world. I do have some sensible students who will ask, ‘Wait, what if nothing happens?’ And that’s a smart question to ask. But it’s also OK to not know what is going to happen because then you get to enjoy the process of discovery, and it’s also OK because of course something will happen, and then you get to transform that into what we call narrative ‘events.’ Each interruption, especially each interruption to your expectations, is an ‘event.’ You can’t fictionally invent events in nonfiction, but you can set them into motion. 

Is that what you do in the book, set events into motion and then write about them?

That’s probably the most experimental part of what I’m doing: rather than taking a passive stance and just reporting on the world, regurgitating or reflecting or reconstituting something that’s already happened, and so therefore deemed worthy as story, since it being in the past tense we can look at it retrospectively and say, Yup, that’s a valuable story, as opposed to setting things into motion where you don’t know what the hell is going to happen. So, in “Avoid the Day” I set the trip to the Arctic in motion, and I set a number of events into motion in Philadelphia and in Transylvania. So that has an element of artifice that I absolutely embrace. I love it. Why not perform in your own life? Letting in any amount of performative into your work is a gift I think everybody should do. I think that is part of what my students love most once they realize I really do mean I want them to be “nonfiction” writers where everything that counts as a fact is a fact, but I also want them to not forget their sense of make-believe, as in, Yeah I can go out into the world and don this persona. I can perform in my own story this way, and that gives it a value. That you can design your own life. It lets them stretch. If it helps them to rationalize the idea of play, let them call it entrepreneurial nonfiction. People who call this kind of writing self-indulgent are fuddy-duddies. 

Entrepreneurial nonfiction? Your work is often described as experimental.

The thing that worries me about the term experimental is it suggests being arbitrary. I still want stories to be elegant and organic and cohesive and thematically sound. So, I feel like the process has to remain open, which is a better term maybe than experimental. Just open.

Did everything in the book really happen?

It’s all true. It’s all real. Most of it painstakingly factchecked.

I am very strict about facticity and writing. Facts are facts. If you are writing about reality, you can’t say that there’s no such thing as a fact, as some “experimental” so-called nonfiction writers have tried to do. That’s completely untenable. You cannot blur fiction and nonfiction. That’s like multiplying anything by zero, it equals zero. You can blur objectivity and subjectivity because they’re already blurred. You can play with the way you interpret though and how we generate meaning via story. How the filter of narrative determines the meaning of things we experienced by how we arrange the material. The choices we make. Selection. It all generates meaning.

In your research, what did you find in the Penn Libraries that was important to the book?

I couldn’t have written this book, or my first book, “Kingdom Under Glass,” without the Penn Libraries. John Pollack was extraordinarily helpful. I kept going into the Kislak Center over and over to just look at Bartók’s autographed manuscript of the “Third String Quartet,” which is now there in the archives. I must have taken out 50 books just on Bartók from Van Pelt. 

The Libraries has a lot of files. In addition to the cardboard boxes full of Otto Albrecht’s papers, there was all his correspondence. I went pretty deep into just the correspondence, which I always find is one of the most useful research methodologies. You read people’s letters and they tell you what’s in their head. The extent kept there is remarkable: 40 years of correspondence. It’s a haystack, and you have to read so, so, so much to find those bits of gold, but you know that you are going to find them.