The Pat Boone Paradox

April 1, 2014 § 8 Comments

Sue William Silverman and Pat Boone

Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore interviews Sue William Silverman, author of the memoir The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew.

Dinty: I was impressed by how you took a number of disparate moments from your life, spanning from your childhood in St. Thomas to events that occurred in just the past few years, moments seemingly unconnected except that they all involved you, and wove them together into what seems to me to be an entirely coherent whole.  Did you begin with a strategy to accomplish this, discover your strategy along the way, or did it just arise and take over on its own?

Sue: Thank you! I wish I could say I’d had a master plan for this book from the get-go.

Instead, the project began with what I thought would be one individual stand-alone essay about a lifelong obsession with Pat Boone, prompted by a 2003 concert of his I attended, after which I barged backstage to meet him. (For those of you unfamiliar with Pat Boone – gasp?! – he’s a 1960s pop-music idol, now better known as an outspoken Christian conservative.) After I completed that piece, and because I didn’t envision another straight-through narrative on a single topic – like my two previous memoirs – I continued to write essays about all sorts of obsessions: Charlie Chaplin, a high school boyfriend who looked like Pat Boone, picking apricots in Israel where I fell in love with a paratrooper, and more. In the process, I played around with different voices and tones: ironic, funny, sad, etc.

I was a few years into this project when I had an “a-ha” moment. I realized that in each essay – albeit approached from different angles – I was writing about a search for identity that evolved from a life-long spiritual crisis. This crisis was rooted in a childhood with a scary Jewish father and, thus, a concomitant desire to belong to the dominant Christian culture. Which explains my obsession with Pat Boone!

In short, I was writing thematically linked essays, which could, with additional work, form a congruent whole. So I revised the existing essays in order to more forcefully focus on this theme. I also wrote entirely new sections to fill in gaps. And, finally, I included several “bridge” sections to tie the whole together.

Silverman, The Pat Boone Fan Club, for webDinty: In an interview some years back, you mentioned the persona challenge in writing your first book, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You.  What you said was, “If, say, in my first book, I just whined and complained and wanted the reader, basically, to feel sorry for me because my father sexually molested me, well, really, the reader wouldn’t feel sorry for me! Sure, my therapist and best friend would care, but a general reader would not care.”  This new book is so different, much lighter, often humorous.  Was crafting the right voice or persona as difficult in this book?

Sue: Yes! To me, generally speaking, voice is probably the most crucial element in writing, and, at the same time, the most elusive. The main challenge in this memoir was finding the right voice(s) for the sections. Thank you for seeing the humor!

At its heart, the book revolves around three different times I met Pat Boone, and I found it difficult to find the voice(s) to write about him both ironically and, well, not. I mean, I did have a wild crush on him growing up. His presence as a squeaky-clean, wholesome family man with four daughters was a beacon of hope, that one day he’d adopt me! I would find safety and a kind of pureness in my life. But if I wrote these sections only as a tribute, or like a love letter to Pat Boone (note that his biggest pop single is “Love Letters in the Sand”), the reader would sigh and think, well, isn’t that sweet: Sue has a crush on Pat Boone.

In short, boring!

Dinty: Well, Sue does have a crush on Pat Boone, but the result seemed anything but boring.  The chapters were alive, surprising, playful, and managed to span your various points-of-view seamlessly.   What did you find to make this work?

Sue: In order to bring the reader fully inside the experience, I juxtaposed the voice that portrays this crush on Pat Boone with another voice that contains a healthy dose of irony and humor – given the difference in our core beliefs.

In other words, on the one hand, he is a caring person who saw the real me. The last time we met – backstage in a green room after his 2005 Christmas concert – I wore a jacket with a flower embroidered on it. He said to me that I reminded him of a flower growing up through concrete. My own father had certainly never seen me this way! So Pat Boone was/is the father figure who really noticed me, acknowledged me. Because of this, I care for him in a deep, human way.

On the other hand, he’s a conservative Christian, so it is ironic that a Jewish, liberal, Democrat, feminist, etc., would have a crush on an active member of the Tea Party. He’s friends with Sarah Palin, for goodness sake! Politically, I don’t agree with anything he represents.

So I had to discover various voices in order to convey the complexities of this rather surreal relationship: funny, ironic, sad, heartfelt.

Since this book is a series of thematically linked sections, I had to “hear” the right voice for each – voices to best represent these different aspects of who I am in my search for identity and belonging.

Dinty: One of the more playful chapters in the book is “Prepositioning John Travolta.”  I love the wordplay, the experimentalism, the surface chicanery that works to shed light on the deeper storylines: a painful divorce, a serious illness, the omnipresent longing. And yet it is a funny chapter, as well. Quite the juggling act?

Sue: Thank you! I myself am not quite sure how I managed to get John Travolta all mixed up in (with?) my prepositional quagmire! Well, I guess it’s synchronicity: I fell madly in love with Travolta (yes, I know, how could that happen, right? Pat Boone? Travolta?) when I saw Saturday Night Fever at least a gazillion times when I lived…well, here’s how the chapter starts:

“Perhaps it’s because you recently moved to Texas and can’t figure out if you live in Galveston or on Galveston Island that you begin to confuse prepositions.  In any event, the first serious outbreak of this prepositional virus blooms at (during?) the time you find yourself, rumpled and damp, before (against?, beside?) the barrette counter in the “notions” aisle in the un-air-conditioned Woolworth’s….”

Thus began the slippery slope! I mean, how could I find my own identity if I couldn’t even figure out something as simple as a few prepositions?

I also wanted the language to reflect my inner confusion. Sometimes, writing memoir, I get caught up sorting out the different strands of an experience. But, at the same time, it’s important to use language itself to embody the experience.  After finishing my second memoir I spent about a year writing poetry, and I think that helped me to branch out further in my prose, to take more chances.

Dinty: Has Pat Boone read the book?

Sue: I sent him an autographed copy, and I received a lovely letter in return. It starts by saying: “Hi dear lady, Thanks, thanks, thanks!” And he tells me how much it means to him that he “helped me through some difficult times,” that he’s thankful I wrote a book “with my name in it….” He adds that he looks forward to reading it, but no, he hasn’t actually read it yet as far as I know.

However, a few years ago, he read the title chapter, “The Pat Boone Fan Club,” when it was that stand-alone essay. And he loved it! (He’s also read my first two memoirs and told me he thought I was “some super writer.” Sigh. I mean that’s cool, right?!)

But I’m a bit nervous about his reaction to this book as a whole. I mean for the book to be a tribute, but one that’s conflicted – given the seeming impossibility that I’d have a life-long crush on a member of the Tea Party! I hope he understands the honor of the tribute but also understands – and accepts – the irony!

Stay tuned…

Dinty:  “What a crazy world we’re living in, huh?”

Sue: Well, it is a totally crazy world!

Okay, for those who haven’t read the book, this line is the opening sentence of Pat Boone’s first e-mail to me, after he read that stand-alone essay I just mentioned.  A high school friend of Pat Boone’s happened to read the essay in a literary magazine and sent it to Pat, so how he came to read it is itself improbable and crazy.

It’s also amazing and crazy that Pat Boone then formally invites me to that Christmas concert of his in Michigan, where he arranges for me to have a real conversation with him backstage. And crazy that I finally, sort-of, and all-too-briefly, get the father I always wanted, one who saw the real me.

Sue SilvermanYes, a crazy world, huh? Or huh!

Sue William Silverman‘s  other works include the memoirs Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, which is also a Lifetime TV movie, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You,which won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction, and a craft book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. As a professional speaker, Sue has appeared on The View, Anderson Cooper 360, and more.  She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.






The Art of Brevity

March 26, 2014 § 1 Comment

scissorsDanny Heitman in the New York Times discusses the challenges and pleasures of concise writing:

What I was reminding myself, I suppose, is that writing is a kind of talk, a discourse that must eventually answer to the clock. In writing, brevity works not only as a function of space on a page, but the time that an audience is willing to spend with you. Even if the Internet has made infinite texts possible, the reader’s attention is not without end.

To shorten my articles, I often worked through several versions, and with a merciless finger on the delete button I could surgically reduce my first draft by half.

The exercise taught me that successful economy of expression often depends on vigorous revision.

The full article can be read here.

Awp 2014: Flash ‘Em

March 20, 2014 § 5 Comments

flashA belated AWP panel report from Alle C. Hall, on the panel “Getting Short-Form Nonfiction to Readers: A Publication Discussion”:

The place was packed.

Kelly Sundberg opened the panel with words worth my conference fee. She made the case that flash is too often and not thoughtfully enough categorized by length. Sundberg delineated four qualities differentiating flash from short fiction or nonfiction:

1.     Image.
Flash lacks space for explanation and multiple characters. Image is the way into the emotional experience.

2.     Compression.
Nix grammar & punctuation. Fragment good.

3.     Structure
Flash connects emotionally. Intuition is stronger in than in a longer piece. There, lean on structure.

4.     Title
Don’t just label it. Make those words do double duty.

Speaking next, Sarah Einstein, managing editor of Brevity, justified hotel costs by laying out what makes a submission work for the magazine

  • Brevity leans toward memoir over thinky.
  • For thinky-er pieces, try Slate.
  • “We are not the edgyist journal on the planet. Brevity is not usually shocky—raw sex and drugs.”
  • Sex and drugs? That would be a Pank piece.

Moving to what she sees too often, Einstein said, “Ten – 15% of submissions are set at a funeral or doctor’s office.”

  • “Those are the moment that hit the writer in gut … (but they do not necessarily) hit the reader in the gut.
  •  If writing about the loss of a loved one, write “the moment that you get it, that they are gone for good, and what you will miss. Write what you are doing at the time.”

Then came Creative Nonfiction’s Hattie Fletcher. Although CNF recently published several two-page essays, their tweet feature is where they do short. In the name of parallel structure, I thank Fletcher for covering my coffee expenditures.

Fletcher summarized a CNF certified-good tweet:

  • Tell a story.
    • You don’t have much room for reflection, but you must have a “my take.”
    • Find meaning.
    • You see a crazy person on the bus, and then another person says this.
    • Use the juxtaposition to convey observation.
    • Too many read like jokes, observations or description.
    • Or settle for describing a character.
    • The biggest challenge:
      • Get outside your head.
      • Don’t make your tweet cryptic.

The final speaker, Chelsea Biondolillo, posted a summation of her presentation here. Astoundingly, it includes a list of magazines accepting short nonfiction. To be clear, she is sharing what must have been hundreds of hours of research.

With this post, she is saving us all that time and all that rejection heartbreak.

The more I sift through the gifts of the panel, the less I want to poke fun at monetary value or highfalutin’ academia. I’ve been to plenty of commercial conferences. Not once did a writer make as selfless a gesture as Biondolillo’s. Not once did editors give as much submission information about a competing magazine as they did about their own.

AWP is a special experience. Thank AWP. Join. Return. Thank the presenters. Subscribe. Buy books. Donate. Today.

Alle C. Hall won The Richard Hugo House New Works Competition. Favorite publications in Creative Nonfiction, Bust, Literary Mama, Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and The Stranger (Contributing Writer). She blogs at About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children. Stop by. She’s happy to talk your ear off.

AWP 2014: When Book Reviews Also Tell Stories

March 18, 2014 § 4 Comments

awp manGuest blog post by Leslie Salas on the AWP Panel, “All This and More: What Form of Creative Nonfiction is the Essay/Review?”

These four distinguished panelists had a lively conversation about the essay/review. Some of them read from academic-style papers with “finger quotes” while others spoke more serendipitously—but the exchange was still rich and informed by their scholarship and experiences as editors and/or writers of book reviews.

Mary Rockcastle defined the essay/review as part book review, part literary essay—well accepted, but hardly every taught. The essay/review, she claimed, should be strong, original, and artfully written, clearly communicating to the reader whether they should spend their time and/or money on the book or not. But, she said, the essay/review should also serve as a springboard for reflection on the personal life of the reviewer—it strives for objectivity, but is continually subjective. The essay/review sets itself apart from other reviews because of the strong personal presence felt behind them, and how they take the reader deep inside a journey of thought. The essay/review is an art form in and of itself, Rockcastle argued, and functions as a way to prompt further conversation about books from people who want to learn how to read differently.

Jocelyn Bartkevicius then addressed the role of the essay/reviewer, and “who [was] this person, anyway?” She used an anecdote of an author’s reaction to a review she had written as a catalyst for thought—who is the speaker giving the review, and how does the reviewer effect the review itself? In an effort to understand the essay/review better, Bartkevicius noted that essays (the “normal” kind), are grounded on their intimacy, their complex narration that is sometimes contradictory, and their focus on discovery, “like looking at diamond from all angles.” She noted that essays from forbearers such as Woolf and Montaigne were also essay/reviews and identified that the best essay/reviews simultaneously engaged in a three-part conversation:

1)      with the reader,

2)      with the editor or writer in consideration, and

3)      with the material that the book or books address.

Bartkevicius also addressed the negative review, and put it into conversation with positive reviews, observing that the traditional “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” approach to reviewing books does not leave enough space to put the reviewer into proper context—it is just concerned about whether or not the reader should buy the book. Rather than struggle with the issues of too little space and the expectation and pressure to be a critic, Bartkevicius argued that we should not be ignorant of history (the concerns about the shortcomings of traditional book reviews are not new) and should rescue the essay/review.

David Ingle spoke from his fifteen years of experience as an essay/review editor with Georgia Review. He noted the three different types of essay/reviews Georgia Review publishes:

  • multi-title essay/reviews (15-20 pages)
  • single-title reviews (4-5 pages)
  • book briefs (like single-title reviews—but brief!)

Ingle identified the book briefs as the most demanding to write, but not to edit. In comparing the book brief and the multi-title essay/reviews, he noted that the essay/reviews the reviewer has to write about four or five books at a time, but he wasn’t sure about the process for the writers. He just knew that he gave them choices, and in a few months, he’d get an essay/review back. Ingle noted that essay/reviews put the reviewer in conversation with both the reader and the writer. He identified the best essay/review as putting the books in conversation with one another—but recognized that this is impossible, but getting close would be nice. From an editor’s perspective, Ingle stated that he always makes sure that the essay/review “works” before they go to press. Ideally the overarching concepts should seem natural and organic rather than forced, and this, more often than not, is a result of the reviewer’s personal experience. When he reads essay/reviews, the aesthetic he is looking for is an essay/review that is equally a review as it is an essay. If it’s too much of a review—it’s just that. A book review. If it is more a personal essay—than why is it in the review section? They’re called the Georgia Review for a reason. Ingle also spoke at length about an experiment he wanted to complete that reminded me of an Oulipo challenge—where instead of giving his essay/reviewers a choice between twenty or so possible books to review, he would give the reviewer five—and only those five—books, and trust that the reviewer would find a way to make the essays interconnected. It wouldn’t necessarily need to be the “right” five books, but something in the zeitgeist that ties them all together—only the reviewer can make that connection transparent.

Stan Sanvel Rubin used his sense of humor to relay his understanding of essay/reviews from his previous experience as an essay/reviewer. He noted that many traditional book reviews are searching for one-liners—like the famous, “The trouble with the book is the covers are too far apart.” That’s not our job, Rubin said, and he dove into the process of writing the essay/review. Like an essayist—first establish context with an opening question to clarify and reveal meaning. The reviewer may have intuited what he or she wants to write about, but they may not be sure yet. Once the first draft is written, the reviewer can play with structure and balance in revision. This is where some of the deeper discovery occurs. The reviewer creates common context by thoroughly reading individual volumes. Then reviews what he or she has read, with value added. The essay/reviewer has the space for freedom and play. They have a voice, but no confession. Above all, they must have a strong sense of their audience, deadline, and clarity—which usually means heavy editing to get it just right. Balance matters—the essay/review must add up to something thoughtful and appreciative to the audience.

The Q&A was brief, but covered a few important topics, such as what to do when a review so comprehensively summarizes a book that it functions as a Cliffsnotes version of the book(s) (it’s up to you), which literary magazines publish the best essay/reviews (all of the literary magazines represented on the panel), how scholarly/academic reviews differ from essay/reviews (tone and word choice).

Leslie Salas is an Associate Course Director in the English Department at Full Sail University. She also serves as Assistant Editor for The Florida Review, Assistant Graphic Narrative Editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection, and as a nonfiction reader for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. Leslie writes in multiple modes—prose, screenplay, & comics—and frequently contributes to The Gloria Sirens, The Drunken Odyssey, and Leslie Learns Lines. Her work has been published in The Southeast Review, Sphere, and others.

On Turning Down Reading Invites: What’s a Writer’s Time Worth?

March 17, 2014 § 2 Comments

Lev Raphael

Lev Raphael

A guest post from Lev Raphael:

Years ago, when I was speaking on a panel at the Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh, I met the writer Evelyn Torton Beck, who was personable, wise, and funny.  She was the first author to talk to me about accurately assessing what my time was worth when I was invited to speak out of town.

It’s not just the day you’re there, she said, if it’s only a day.  It’s the day before, getting ready, and then at least one day of re-entry into your regular schedule, sometimes more, depending on how complicated your visit was.

I’d never thought of doing a gig in those terms and it was immensely helpful.  Like the time I was invited to speak in San Francisco, and the speaker’s fee was good.  But that’s as far as it went: they weren’t even offering to cover hotel and meals, just air fare and “home hospitality.”  The latter is extremely iffy.  The one thing I crave on the road is privacy, since I’m constantly on stage.  I really wanted to do the gig, especially since I hadn’t spoken in San Francisco for a long time, but then I thought of the jet lag I’d be dealing with, and to me that doubled the time involved.  I simply wasn’t being compensated enough for how much I’d have to put into it, so I said no.

Saying no isn’t easy for writers.  I’ve had many discussions with other authors and this is a subject that comes up again and again.  Part of the problem is that when we start out, we tend to say yes to everything because we crave the exposure, and somehow feel it will magically boost our careers.  We want the attention, the recognition, the respect, and hopefully the  sales that might result.  Our hopes can create a habit of saying yes.

Luckily I have a spouse who not only chimed in on what Evelyn Beck said, but added, “Ask yourself if you think you might end up griping about having to do the gig a few weeks before you go.  Ask yourself if you think it’ll be fun or different or challenging.  Ask yourself if the money really will compensate for being ripped out of your writing schedule.”

Other writers may have different questions that help them decide what to do and where.  But these work pretty well for me, and have helped me turn down gigs that I was sure later on I would regret doing.

One more thought.  The late poet Terri Jewell and I used to talk about the writing life a lot and she taught me an elegant way of saying no to things I didn’t want to do: “Thank you for asking, but I’m booked.”  It gracefully closes the discussion and I’ve used it more than once to good effect.

Lev Raphael is the author of 24 books in many genres: memoir, mystery, literary fiction, short fiction, advice for writers, essay collections, historical fiction, horror, psychology, biography, a teachers guide, and literary criticism.  His books have been translated into a dozen languages and Deborah Dash Moore, head of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan has hailed him as “a leading figure in American-Jewish Literature.”


AWP 2014: The Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family

March 13, 2014 § 2 Comments


Linda Joy Myers  on the AWP 14 panel “Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family”:

I’m a family therapist and a memoirist, so I was looking forward to hearing writers talk about the intersection of family and memoir in the workshop “Family Trouble” moderated by Joy Castro. She is the editor of Family Trouble—The Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family. The panelists included Joy Castro, Ralph Savarese, Sue William Silverman, Faith Adiele, and Stephanie Griest. The crowd filled the room and spilled out the doorway.

Joy Castro, author of the memoir The Truth Book, introduced a topic fraught with “trouble” for memoirists. “We are on a voyage of discovery to personal truth and family as we write memoir, and may be dealing with ‘self-erasure’ due to trauma.” Memoirists struggle with what to write and whether they should give themselves permission. We break the “family rules” when we write memoir—”don’t you dare tell anyone about THAT.” We have to decide what to leave in and what to leave out to serve the story.

Ralph Savarese continued the theme about choice as he discussed how he negotiated with his autistic son what details to include and the important threads in their memoir Reasonable People.  Writing a memoir means we have to ask ourselves what right we have to material that includes intimate details in other people’s lives. How much do we weigh their privacy with our need to express ourselves? He shared his writing process with his son, whose voice became more prominent over the course of writing the book. Together, they crafted a story that belonged to both of them.

Sue William Silverman writes to understand herself, and is unwilling to hold back her hard-won truths. In her book Love Sick, she revealed details that upset her ex-husband. “I wrote the story the way she needed to.  My honesty is more important to me than my ex-husband’s anger. We write to no longer hide behind our secrets.” The issue of silence looms large in the narratives of people who are abused and traumatized. An abused child lives in a world of silence, as adults do too, until they are able to break out and speak the truth. This can become our life’s work. “Writing my life gives me power.” Her advice? No matter what family thinks or wants, “break through your barriers and write anyway.” Figure out how to handle your family later.

Faith Adiele, author of Meeting Faith, has a Nordic-American mother and a Nigerian father. She’s spent her life learning about her global family, and exploring identity and belonging. She says one of the goals of writing memoir is to “free the family of shame.” She discussed the topics of betrayal, loyalty and silence in the work of Patricia Hampl and the poetry of Sharon Olds. “Writing family members on the page requires great compassion. Each memoirist’s voice is part of a larger song and we each have to decide where our songs begin, over and over again.”

Stephanie Elizondo Griest writes to discover the bonds of family in Mexican Enough—My Life Between the Borderlines she explores belonging, identity, and how we call ourselves family. She visited Mexico to try to find her roots, and saw how quickly we disappear—“the etchings on the grave stones were worn smooth by the rain.” She spoke with passion how we must explore the questions that drive us, and write our discoveries so we articulate the voices of our ancestors and leave a legacy. “Memoir is the best way I know of perpetuating us.”

The feeling in the room was one of hunger—to understand the “rules” of memoir, and to find answers about the conflicts that haunt memoir writers about family, truth, and finding voice. The panelists fed that hunger by speaking about their struggles, demonstrating that you can write a book about family and live to tell about it.

Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, joins speakers for monthly teleseminars at to discuss tools, topics, and questions that drive memoirists crazy. She is the author of Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness, The Power of Memoir, and the Journey of Memoir. She co-teaches the program Write Your Memoir in Six Months.

AWP 2014: Comedy is Tragedy Plus Time

March 13, 2014 § 5 Comments

mr lopate

“Lefty”Lopate. Photo courtesy of Marla Sink Druzgal []

Alle C. Hall reports on the panel, “Lightening Up the Dark: The Role of Humor in Memoir.”

Stop whining, dang you!

Naturally, the panelist stated it more kindly and with greater eloquence, fessing up to arrogance and regret, to fear, even self-pity—so long as by the final draft, self-pity was gone, gone, gone.

Philip Lopate and Suzanne Greenberg’s craft talks opened and closed the event. Greenberg teaches CNF at Cal State Fullerton, while Lopate goes about the lucky business of being Lopate. He suggested:

  1. Say horrendous things that everyone thinks but no one says out loud.
  2. Say them blithely.
  3. At least teeter on the edge of completely unacceptable.
  4. Use slightly anachronistic language.
  5. Be exquisitely modest.
  6. Poke fun at one’s own cowardice, cruelty, and selfishness.

Susanne Greenberg described students regularly writing about personal tragedies without understanding the unremarkable nature of their tragedies. To help them “stop staring out the window in regret,” she:

  1. infuses the classroom with humor, primarily through her attitude;
  2. looks for moments of humor in an otherwise serious work; and
  3.  seeks revelation, a slashing truth in a lighter piece.

To my mind, she was speaking to the Chekhovian state of joy-filled pain, or pain-filled joy. I can’t out which was which, but do know that it doesn’t matter. The three authors that spoke between Lopate and Greenberg—Joe Mackall, Mimi Schwartz, and Daniel Stolar—understand keenly what it means to share that gift.

Joe Mackall wasted no time getting to busting guts. “Speaking after Phillip Lopate must be like what Danny DeVito feels, at a bar with Brad Pitt. They’re not there for you but there is decent overflow.”

Mackall then dove into a confession of true fear, and the separate fear of writing trite. Was he a “sentimental idiot” because:

  • he was ageing. (Riff: when incontinence finally gets too embarrassing, he plans to smoke a lot of weed.)
  • he refuses to get new carpet in the library because his granddaughters had crawled across the old.

Mimi Schwartz taught the gift by sharing it. She described a moment, when she was at an emotional nadir from loosing her breasts to cancer, that her husband went about their house, saying, “Here, titty, titty; Here, titty, titty.”

She said, “Question the premise that seriousness is more valid than honest humor. Let’s not choose. Let’s go for good writing and good reading, toward a more complex truth.” Schwartz encouraged what she called, “the anger that may start the piece” giving way to something so much more than a way to get over your tragedy. It can turn survival into thriving.

The ideal segue for Dan Stolar, who read work so personal that he remains undecided as to whether to publish it. To honor his choice, I’ll share some of his wisdom, instead.

  • “I use humor to try to break your heart, and to try to keep mine from breaking in the process.”
  • “Make the reader complicit.” He mentioned a gossip-nasty joke that came up two times. “Some of you laughed twice.”
  •  “You are not joking, even as you are trying to make someone laugh. But we are not joking.”

Note the shift in pronoun.

It was gorgeous, witnessing the writers enjoy their work with a seeming lack of self-absorption. Their work seemed at a point where they were curious about people (including themselves) as the walking diagnoses that we are. And the moments that scored the biggest laughs were those when one of them looked up from their prose with a pause, and a self-effacing chuckle.

Alle C. Hall’s blog, About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children, is accepting submissions for The Not-Nearly-Annual Frozen Fish Head Haiku Contest. Ms. Hall is a saucy lass, but serious about comic haiku.

Top 10 Reasons Why “Navigating Emptiness: Benefits and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay” Was A Great Panel

March 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

dreamtigers_coverby Sally Ashton

10. Smart Women Panelists

The scheduled mixed-gender panel of four turned out to be three women, three very smart women well-suited to the discussion of the “lyric essay’s delight in gaps, association, and the unknown,” a panel who also presented effective teaching strategies. Panelists included moderator and editor of Rose Metal Press, Kathleen Rooney; Dr. Nicole Walker, Northern Arizona University; and Dr. Julie Paegle, Associate Professor of Poetry at California State University San Bernardino.

9. A Hot Topic

Lyric Essay. This brief form might be voted Most Popular AWP Concept 2014 if you take into account the number of panels devoted to any murky combination of short form considerations. I counted thirteen, though more might have been lurking behind cleverer titles.

8. Best Neologism to Replace Clunky “Cross-Genre-Hybrid-Form-Trans-Blended-Flash-Shorts-Lyric-Essay” Terminology

Thanks to Kathleen Rooney for introducing “Open Form Essay,” and for explaining how she arrived at a term whose definition enacts what it names. She says the term occurred to her after reading Naked Poetry, a 1969 anthology, Stephen Berg, ed.

7. Concrete Tips

See also: #2, Handouts.

6. Sample Assignments

Well-articulated assignments accompanied by either clear instructions or detailed handouts made this panel’s take-away value high. Assignments included “imitation” assignments from readings; working with the Petrarchan sonnet as an generating structure for a piece; and writing secrets, one true and one false that both appear to be true, to be redistributed and serve as a prompt for another student’s essay.

5. Cool Recommended Texts

The texts were chosen to serve in specific themed courses, but having titles listed in the syllabi helped me to better envision the connections each instructor was looking to make. Three books that I felt I would read anyway were A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)Tics, by C.A. Conrad; Dreamtigers, by Borges (I’ve read only selections); and The Noisy Egg, poetry by panelist Nicole Walker. The panelists did seem to be teaching the lyric essay in a cross-genre fashion for the most part, and this was reflected in their hybrid booklists.

4. Good Hybrid Form Apologists

I guess we’re always anxious to know the why of everything and this panel revealed a number of reasons why a hybrid approach is a good strategy for teaching grad and undergrad student writers. Panelists variously claimed that this mode was useful for grads to cross-fertilize their “home” genre, that a short form can serve more concisely as a teaching model for how to understand and manipulate a text, that the open form lends itself to manageable self-reflection, and that in certain student populations it can be empowering for students to realize they can use literary strategies to process trauma.

3. A Well-organized Presentation

At 9am on an AWP-Friday morning, clear and useful presentations full of ideas and hewing to time limitations that also allow ample time for Q&A makes you glad you answered the alarm instead of sleeping through it. Like you wanted to. They were a fast-paced, smart, and superbly prepared panel.

2. Helpful Handouts

You might feel like a shopper at a sale table when an AWP panel offers a handout. Mine! These Navigators offered three. I especially appreciated that at least one panelist brought an assistant to insure the sheets were evenly distributed and that there were enough handouts for the entire group. Except for the last handout that proved to be one short. Mine. However, these panelists offered to email material to those who missed (tip to future panelists: we are writers, after all. We will read and likely hoard the stuff). Handouts include complete course syllabi as well as lists of course texts and a couple of assignments.

And the TOP reason “Navigating Emptiness: Benefits and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay” was so good:

1. Smart Women Panelists Who Said the Following Memorable Near-quotes

Nicole, in regards to instructing students, stressed that they need to “ground floating thoughts . . . Thoughts need an audience. (I tell them) your thoughts need to be seen as a character. Put yourself in a character on the page.” Kathleen, defending her term “Open Form Essay,” stressed the need to avoid designation that over-determines the writing before it’s written, but instead to “allow form to develop organically. To let content shape the piece.” Julie, in discussing the tension inherent in lyric’s epiphanic transport and narrative’s movement through time, said that the lyric essay can be thought of as “a time machine that renegotiates suspended time.” Besides being intelligent writers, they were friendly, engaged, and generous. Thank you, all.

Sally Ashton is Editor-in-Chief of DMQ Review (, an online journal featuring poetry and art. She is the author of three poetry books, and she has just completed Behaviour of Clocks, a hybrid collection. Ashton teaches at San Jose State University and in Disquiet International Literary Program, Lisbon.

Finding a Market for Your Flash Nonfiction

March 11, 2014 § 6 Comments

flashChelsea Biondolillo shares advice from the AWP 2014 panel, “Getting Short-Form Nonfiction to Readers: A Publication Discussion.” 

The number of journals, both online and in print, that are willing to consider flash nonfiction grows each year. Some of these venues have strict format, word count, or topic guidelines, while others are willing to consider a wide variety of prose configurations.

What follows are some notes on methods and strategies that have informed my own research into finding markets for my own flash nonfiction.

  • Ask around. For two years in a row, I scoured the book fair at AWP for journals willing to consider short, truthy prose. If an editor or representative of a journal said they’d be willing to consider something under 1,000 words, I asked if they had any examples in print—and when they did, I bought them.
  • Use the Google-force. If you don’t have the luxury of getting to AWP, or can’t bear to wait for next year, you can search free resources such as Poets & Writers and search engines. If I can’t find “flash nonfiction,” I look for the magic words, “short prose.” Failing that, I search for a combination of “prose poetry,” “hybrid or experiemental,” and “narrative or lyric nonfiction”—if a journal is willing to consider all three of those categories, they will likely consider flash nonfiction.
  • Practice the form in your cover letter. My cover letter is almost always an exercise in brevity. This is not advice specific to short form publication, but can be used for any and all journal submissions when you don’t already have a personal relationship with the editor. Whatever you do, don’t write a letter that is longer than your submission.


Dear Ms. Brown / nonfiction editor,

Thank you for considering the attached flash prose, “My Tiniest Essay,” for publication in The Pushcart Machine Review. The word count is approximately 250, and this is a simultaneous submission.


Chelsea Biondolillo

 Author bio:

Be brief, professional, and use the third person. Italicize journal names if the format will allow it.

Click here for a list of Flash Nonfiction Markets assembled by Chelsea Biondolillo 

AWP 2014: Truth & First Person Journalism

March 10, 2014 § 5 Comments

1901147_10152629853947656_1697701726_nGuest blogger Samantha Claire Updegrave responds to the AWP Seattle panel, “First Person Journalism: Tips for Telling the Truth”:

I’m in an end-of-AWP-day-one cranky stupor when journalist, author, and magazine editor Autumn Stephens’ humor lifts me up. I shift my sore hips back into the chain-locked chair, lean forward, and soak up her soft-spoken words. 

“Americans tell 1.6 lies a day,” she tells us, citing a 2010 study. She leans into the microphone and tosses out a few examples.

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

We have an open marriage.

There are weapons of mass destruction.”

I’m pretty honest, but it makes me think. I tell that first lie to my four-year-old who demands the book Santa’s Toy Shop at bedtime at least four times a week. He says he’s going to be extra good this year so that Santa will stop at his house with a model train and tunnel. It’s only March, and if he wants to self-govern based on that, fine with me. In early adulthood I once fell for something along the lines of the second. Big mistake. And the third, we’re still feeling the reverberations of that lie the world over.

Stephens throws out a different example, one from her early magazine days. She was asked to write about interior design, which she knew nothing about, and took a personal approach, letting the story speak through her experience as a novice. She began with something along the lines of, “As I walked through the gates I was transported to the South Seas….” Her editor returned the piece with the “I’s” crossed out and replaced by, “a visitor.” It reminded her of something her mother had told her years before. “She said I could expect a monthly visitor.” When she saw the changes in the article, she had the same thought as after her mother’s warning. “What visitor?”

Old-time journalist will tell you that they learned to never use the vertical pronoun, that slender sneaky little “I.” But these days, when it’s not strict reportage, there’s a more nuanced view of the “I.”

Using the first person, coming out and saying who we are, is one way we can infuse our non-fiction writing with integrity. There’s no need for the visitor artifice. First person is a gateway into a story because it invites the reader in, illuminates the universal through our experiences. It’s not for every piece, but let’s look at those beginning lies as a case study.

If I were writing about how family beliefs get passed down, I could start with the Santa experiences with my son. I could ask my Jewish friends from childhood, whom I later learned helped their parents carry their presents from the basement closet to their tree, why they never told me the truth. Maybe I’d find a bigger story about belief and belonging.

If I wanted to explore the virtue of faithfulness, I could enter the story through my experience of what was supposed to be a one-night stand in my early 20’s with a man who claimed his marriage had ended. He lied, then his wife left and he became my problem. This approach could let readers look at their feelings without making them directly confront their own transgressions, whether real or fantasy.

If I wanted to write about how the things got worse for girls in Afghanistan with the US military presence, I wouldn’t need to be in it. But, if I was writing about the recall of inactive troops, I’d share my story of the letter I received on September 21, 2011 notifying me that my permanent separation from the US Air Force, which was slated for December 5th, was on hold, indefinitely.

It boils down to trusting our intuition with our writing, to asking if our experiences or interactions with the subject matter lead us to the truth, a “go big” where our presence brings the reader in and illuminates the story, world, or some aspect of our shared humanity.

Stephens asserts that whatever we write, with the exception of our grocery list, that we should, “Write with integrity, and for God’s sake don’t be boring.”

Samantha Claire Updegrave writes creative non-fiction, micro-essays, and poetry. Her work has appeared most recently in Literary Mama, Bacopa Literary Review, and hipMama. She is an MFA candidate at The Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and an assistant non-fiction editor at Soundings Review. By day she is an urban planner, and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her partner, young son, and two feuding cats.

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