October 30, 2014 § 10 Comments
A guest post from Melissa Cronin:
At this year’s Boston Book Festival, I plodded into a standing-room-only venue to attend the session, “Writer Idol.” I stuffed a page with the first two hundred fifty words of my memoir into a box bulging with dozens of other submissions, then sat in an aisle seat, in case I decided the session was not for me after all. I stared ahead, waiting for three agents – Kimiko Nakamura, Sorche Fairbank, and Amaryah Orenstein – to enter the stage, where they would listen to two authors take turns reading anonymous submissions. I recalled the description of the event in the brochure: “This session is not for the thin-skinned.” I can handle this.
The second submission was weighed down by “too much exposition,” and encumbered with “meaningless” words, Ms. Fairbank said. “I don’t know what’s happening,” Ms. Orenstein said about the third submission. The fourth one was also interrupted. “The scene seems like it’s about to drag on,” Ms. Fairbank commented. I scribbled notes, visualizing my piece. Do I use clichés? I don’t believe I use wasted words.
For the rest of the session, even though I burned with disappointment, I focused on the responses of the agents, telling myself that this was my chance to learn what they are looking for in a manuscript. I jotted notes: “Start off simple. Don’t dump information onto the page. Don’t create long sentences at the start of the book. Don’t use description for description’s sake, and watch out for piling descriptions on top of each other.”
October 29, 2014 § 2 Comments
As writers in the modern age, many of us debate pen-and-paper over computer, with a few staunch holdouts for the manual typewriter. The form in which we write affects how our writing process functions. Some swear by the connection of heart-to-hand when writing with a pen, and the portability of a Moleskine or a dime-store notebook. Others feel you’ll pry their MacBook Air from their cold, dead hands (right before the barista seeks help moving the body). We love our internet-blocker apps and our Evernote and our Scrivener. And we cling like a lifeboat to our Times New Roman or Garamond or the swoops of our own handwriting.
What if the very shapes of our letters were controlled, or we didn’t get to pick our own font? Ali Eteraz, a Pakistani-American writer, discusses the media storm when IKEA switched from Futura to Verdana, and how silly that outrage seemed. Then he draws a comparison to the death of the ancient Urdu script, now being replaced by a modern version:
Now imagine if the Futura loyalists had been faithful for hundreds of years; had produced poets of Shakespeare’s caliber that had written in Futura; and had institutions and schools where the stylish rendering of Futura script was mastered over the course of a lifetime, only to one day be told that not only could they no longer write in Futura, but they had to write in Braggadocio, and if they didn’t like that then they could write in Chinese.
As someone whose alphabet is the dominant alphabet in world media, it’s never been an issue for me to change my letter-shapes or adapt to new letter-shapes imposed upon me by my phone or my keyboard. I’ve never had to phonetically spell out my words in another language’s script. I’ve never thought about how my meaning can be unintentionally changed by the visual presentation of my work. All of those situations are being experienced by Urdu writers. How they are reconciling, holding out, and morphing the Roman alphabet to serve their purposes is a fascinating read.
Check out Ali Eteraz’s essay on the mutations of Urdu and the effect on Urdu writers, over at Medium.
October 28, 2014 § 1 Comment
We continue to explore Rose Metal Press’ fascinating new flash anthology, My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form. This week, Meg Pokrass interviews Aaron Teel about Teel’s novella in flash Shampoo Horns. Teel’s novella incorporates a number of pieces originally written as memoir, including one that appeared in Brevity’s Winter 2008 issue:
MP: When or why did you first get the inkling that your memoir stories such as “The Widow’s Trailer” had the potential to be linked and shaped into a novella-in-flash?
AT: I wrote “The Widow’s Trailer” and a couple of others without any kind of larger project in mind, but kept finding myself wanting to return to that world. There’s something about the confines of a secluded, self-contained place that’s very exciting to me from a storytelling perspective and that lends itself, I think, to an episodic structure.
MP: Can you give us an example of the way in which you navigated that ambiguous terrain between fiction and memoir while writing Shampoo Horns?
AT: Perversely, making the switch to fiction allowed me to see those characters more clearly than I had. My actual memories of being around Cherry Tree’s age are fuzzy and distant and composed mostly of disconnected sense-images or anecdotes that have been told and retold and have, at best, a nebulous relationship with journalistic truth. The memoir material allowed me to access a set of emotions and images that I could more fully explore with fiction than I was capable of doing with any fidelity to my half-formed memories.
MP: How does emotional memory inform the process of reshaping memoir into fiction?
AT: Emotional memory informs everything. It’s difficult to imagine a peopled, empathetic fiction (or memoir) of any kind that doesn’t draw on the author’s emotional memory. I don’t know that it’s actually any easier to write from the perspective of a character that’s loosely based on a former version of one’s self, though. Whether working in memoir or fiction, a writer has to tap into his/her own well of experience when rendering the sticky, humiliating stuff of being human.
MP: Do you have advice for other literary adventurers who hope to embark on the same path with their writing?
AT: Mining one’s own memory for fiction is a valuable experience for a writer, I think. There’s a reason so many first works are largely autobiographical. Whether working in memoir or fiction, though, I would recommend concerning one’s self firstly with subjective truth and allowing your reader to inhabit the human, and therefore necessarily subjective, point of view of your subject. Make your reader see and feel what and how your characters see and feel. Even journalism, as we know from constant example, only pretends at objectivity—but a memoirist or a fiction writer who draws on her own experience is under no obligation to pretend.
Aaron Teel hails from Austin, Texas, and is currently an MFA fiction fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. His work has appeared previously in Tin House, Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Brevity, and others. His novella-in-flash Shampoo Horns won the Rose Metal Press Sixth Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest in 2012.
October 24, 2014 § 2 Comments
There’s been debate lately about how far into journalism the essay should be allowed to go, and what truths are made more apparent from a writer speaking personally and without detachment. In the introduction to Best American Essays 2014 (which will be published next week), John Jeremiah Sullivan traces the history of the term “essay” and points out the personal quality inherent in the both the word and the form:
…for if a book would be a true mirror, it must always reflect back in the direction from which it’s approached. [Montaigne] will leave not one but many doors open to his readers. You may enter him through his likable talkativeness, his confessional, conspiratorial intimacy (he remains one of the few writers in history to have possessed the balls to admit he had a small penis), through his learning, through the possibly unreattained depth of his psychological soundness, through the consolation he offers in times of sorrow—come whichever way you want, the door is there in the writing, and it’s there in the title. It could even be said that Montaigne comes to you. After all, we often write that Montaigne invented a form—and it’s true—but he did it by adapting others, one of which was the epistolary. For as long as there had been writing there had been books that are presented as a letter to someone, fictional or real, and under this guise, essayistic experiments were perpetrated. Montaigne makes a single bold edit. Instead of Dear Sebastien or whatever, it was Dear Reader. It was you.
Confessional, conspiratorial intimacy. Perhaps nothing ties us closer to the history of our form than that sense of secrets told, agonizing over whether someone will be hurt, deciding to tell anyway, sharing one’s own cracks and weaknesses in an attempt to balance the revelations. Dear Reader, Dear You: I drove impaired, I dated my teacher, I stalked my psychiatrist.
And if we’re asked, “Why do you need to share all that? Isn’t that too personal?” perhaps we can quote Montaigne, on the subject of his tiny manhood:
I hate to see it, for one poor inch of pitiful vigor which comes upon it but thrice a week, to strut and put itself in battle-array with as much eagerness as if there were in the belly a great and legitimate day’s work; a true flame of flax. And I wonder to see it so lively and throbbing and then in a moment so congealed and extinguished.
Maybe quote that one in French.
October 23, 2014 § 5 Comments
Debra Gwartney discusses her essay “Cake” in the current issue of Brevity, and the idea of question marks of the soul:
I know I’m not the only one whose eyes pop open in the wee hours, 2 a.m., or 5 a.m., or some moment in between when sleep should be a given but isn’t. Those nights, before I can lead myself back down the soft trail to slumber (I’ve heard this is possible; I know nothing of it) my mind gets churning in what I call The Squirrel Cage. I realize it’s a cliché, squirrel cage, but I use it because the label came to me during a wee hour session when I was too exhausted to stir a clever trope. Plus, the image fits, crusty rodent feet scurrying across the lumpy plains of my memory, scrounging up past episodes that don’t need another middle of the night review, and yet I seem crazy-determined to sort through the prickled past again. Why was I so hard on my daughter fifteen years ago? Why was I scornful of that editor back in 1993? Why did I lie to my mother when I was ten? For reasons I have yet to decipher, there’s peace still to be made with certain, and often very small, remembrances of the past.
For instance, the night I ate cake, a single slice I’d noticed in a friend’s kitchen. I gobbled the confection while my ex-husband and the others were around the corner laughing it up at the dining room table. In the dark of night decades after I’d done it, I recalled my brashness at shoving that cake in my mouth and writhed under the covers. This act of embarrassing desperation got at least an hour in the cage while I prodded every detail of the evening, punishing myself for being a silly, sad girl.
The next morning I’d gained a bit of perspective. What was the big deal with eating cake? I snuck it a long time ago and, really, nobody suffered permanent damage, and, besides, if I’d asked for the slice the hostess probably would have given it to me. Why couldn’t I send this memory off into the pillows of the subconscious, where it couldn’t bother me anymore?
In the light of day, it occurred to me that it was worth writing about, this memory that still poked. Such question marks of the soul intrigue me when it comes to memoir writing: seemingly innocuous events that won’t leave you alone years after the fact are often the best fodder. Sorting through the particulars of our Bavarian-themed dinner party and forcing myself to admit what I’d done, instead of drumming up excuses or pretending it didn’t happen (my middle of the night tactic), might, I thought, bring release.
Bring release? It’s curious I would consider this a possibility, as I’m generally opposed to the idea that memoir must be cathartic. That is, memoir has no responsibility, at least I don’t think so, to bring about a “restoration of spirit,” which is one dictionary’s definition (“catharsis” also means “a medicine that purges the bowels”). Memoir isn’t therapy. Memoir isn’t charged to necessarily reconstitute, to repair what’s been broken. I much prefer Kim Stafford’s idea that, “memoir’s job is not to answer the question, but to deepen the question.”
After I published my book, Live Through This, a memoir about my wrongheaded illusions as a younger mother and the resulting conflagration of my family, many people asked me if I’d written the book as a release, a cleansing, an ablution to wash away the pain of the past. Sure, I’d say. Sort of. There was nothing easy about scraping my mess up off the muddy sidewalk to examine it anew, so I hoped that some good would come of it. Good came. My daughters and I talked with an honesty, an openness, that wasn’t possible before, a welcomed clearing of the air.
But healing a riff with my daughters was never my central aim. I wanted to tell a good story, a captivating story. I wrote seven drafts over a period of eight years until the narrative worked, until I could finally see my role in our dynamic, until I could own my part. I didn’t want to acknowledge how I’d contributed to our troubles, but I realized there’d be no narrative drive without it. A narrative with energy, with urgency and fierce honesty—the opposite of a tedious complaint of bad children hurting their good mother—required that I embrace another cliché: hold your own feet to the fire. And sure, in the process of feet-to-flames I began to know myself better.
I don’t remember, not once, sitting down to write with the intention of repairing the past. I didn’t consciously plan to find enough words and put them in the right order to fix what ailed us. I sat down to write because I couldn’t not sit down and write. Every time I tried to quit, the book called me back. It nudged me in the wee hours, in the middle of the day, upon waking and upon going to bed. The story demanded to be written and so I wrote it. The rather unexpected restoration, the healing, the catharsis—those were added bonuses, arriving of their own accord and not because I forced them.
I feel the same about the little cake essay. I don’t remember the names of the people we ate with that night—they were my then-husband’s friends from work. Even if I found identities and addresses, I have no need to go back and clean up with those folks. I wrote about eating the cake because that one-minute slip had bugged me for decades, dangling many nights at two a.m., waiting to be parsed. And so I parsed it. I wrote until I uncovered the character’s motivations and intentions, the stark loneliness and fear that led the “I” on the page, who’s both me and not, to consume what wasn’t hers. With every draft, I made myself consider what’s best for the narrative, and not what was going to make me feel better about what I did.
And, eureka, self-forgiveness was part of the process. It sidled up when I wasn’t looking. Another nice bonus. Something like the cherry on top of a German chocolate cake.
Debra Gwartney is the author of a memoir, Live Through This, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and she is co-editor of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. Her work has appeared in many journals and magazines, most recently Prairie Schooner and The Normal School. She teaches in the Pacific University MFA in Writing Program, and lives in Western Oregon.
October 22, 2014 § 6 Comments
…Your journalism’s in my personal essay! But are they two great reads that read great together? Do confessionals really get us closer to the truth than reportage?
At the Washington Post, Eve Fairbanks takes a look at the recent trend of first-person narratives used to fill column inches that were previously journalism, and questions whether they really open up new vistas, or are instead inescapably biased and perhaps even jejune.
…perhaps what we’re really seeing, with the so-called democratization of opinion, is how weird and variegated writers’ lives actually are, rather than a profoundly widened window into human experience. From Homer onwards, it’s always been the duty of reporters to tell stories about the lives of those people who cannot spin great stories out of their own astonishing experiences.
Ironically enough, the article is itself a first-person essay rather than journalism. It’s not necessary for every essay mentioned to be investigated, but this leads to lumping them together as not-journalism. Ms. Fairbanks misses, for example, that the woman pictured with twins (whose essay What Happened When I Drove My Mercedes to Pick Up Food Stamps Ms. Fairbanks cites as an example of the trend) is veteran reporter-turned-stay-at-home-mom Darlena Cuhna, and the Mercedes piece sparked a national conversation on poverty that was covered by CNN and Al Jazeera, among other ‘real’ news outlets.
Should the reporter be in the story? Should a story be the reporter’s story? What makes an essay journalism? Ms. Fairbanks examines these thought-provoking questions from several angles and with quite a few links to first-person pieces worth exploring.