April 25, 2013 § 2 Comments
JW: What do you like about writing flash nonfiction? What do you think works better in flash nonfiction compared to what works in longer pieces?
Brenda Miller: I like the way flash nonfiction is so contained. I can feel myself settling in quite quickly and making myself at home, like a guest who’s treated as part of the family. There are no awkward niceties, no tours of the house; instead I bustle right in and throw down my things, put my feet up on the table, and start either laughing uproariously with my host or settling in for a deep talk. Do you know how it feels when you see an old friend you haven’t spoken to in years, but it feels like you take up where you left off without missing a beat? That’s how writing a flash piece feels to me. Because of this, a flash piece, for me, needs to emerge organically from a an unexpected image or be triggered by a line of poetry that rings in your ears. It can’t be thought out too hard (or at all) ahead of time. You need to just walk through the door. You need to welcome whatever you find there and greet it with all your attention, lean in for the kind of hug that happens between old friends. Not the brief embrace. Not the nice pat on the back. The heart-to-heart hug. A hug that hums.
JW: In one of the many pieces you’ve published in Brevity, “Swerve,” why did you choose to write that in the second person, and what do you think this does for the piece?
Brenda Miller: I can’t say that I “chose” to write “Swerve” in the second person, because the form demanded it. My writing buddies and I assigned each other to write an apology to someone or something in our past. So I started out writing it to an old boyfriend about something trivial, but it ended up in the end being an apology to that young self who put herself in danger. I couldn’t have thought through that transition ahead of time; it had to happen through the details that emerge through written remembrance.
JW: What is your favorite flash nonfiction piece that you have ever written?
Brenda Miller: That’s a tough one. I love them all. But “Swerve” is definitely up there because it does so much in a short amount of time. It also has that element of surprise for me as the writer, and I hope for the reader as well. It showed me something I hadn’t quite articulated before. And it validated for me the power of starting with the small detail–something I tell my students all the time, but a truth I need to continually enact for myself.
Brenda Miller is the author of Listening Against the Stone: Selected Essays (Skinner House Books 2011), Blessing of the Animals (Eastern Washington University Press 2009), and Season of the Body (Sarabande Books 2002). She co-authored, with poet Holly J. Hughes, The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World (Skinner House Books, 2012). She is also the co-author of Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, 2nd Edition (McGraw-Hill, 2012).
Justin Weller is an undergraduate English major at Ohio University.
April 23, 2013 § 14 Comments
A guest post from Jordan Wiklund:
Unless you’re writing about your dog in some way that’s significant, no one cares about your dog.
Really, they don’t.
This lesson was brought home to bear last week as I struggled to pare down a 2,800-word essay to something I could read in 10-12 minutes at a local Pank invasion of Minneapolis. Up late on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday and Thursday, how the hell am I going to do this was the question I kept repeating as I trimmed a word here, a clause there, but not at the pace I needed. I was nowhere near an essay of manageable length for a brief, boozy reading. The only things I had managed to do was give myself a cold and deplete our stash of wine, whiskey, and Goldfish crackers.
Late on Thursday, though, I was close. I timed myself reading (as all responsible readers should do), and even blazing through it, still clocked in at 13.30, 14 minutes. No good.
I called my wife away from her own work. She was busy charting patients, tracking the health and healthcare of a dozen nameless people, something arguably much more important than, well, listening to her husband navigate through another hurried reading at the kitchen table.
“Take notes,” I said, “tell me what isn’t working.” Dear God let this work.
I read the piece. Rachel had already heard portions of it several times, but I asked her to lock in. As I read, eyes flitting to the timer beside me, she only made a few brief scribbles on a nearby notepad.
“It’s good,” she said, “and I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but…” She paused.
“You’re not going to hurt my feelings,” I said. No one knows this better than her.
“Does anybody really, I mean, I know he’s important to you, but does anybody really care about your dog?”
“I-DAMN-WELL-CARE-ABOUT-MY-DOG!” I shouted. An improbable April snowstorm whirled outside, and visions of Tundra, the old family Siberian, danced in my head.
Except I didn’t shout–I didn’t say that at all. She continued, explaining that though she knew and remembered my old husky, as I knew and remembered my old husky, the audience won’t know nor remember my old husky. They won’t know him, she said, so why is he in there? Can you get to the point of that husky-as-lead-in-clause without, well, the husky-as-lead-in?
“Yer darned tootin’,” I said. Cut.
“And the extended subway station description?” Cut.
“And why you’re good friends with Matt? I think they know enough about him.” Cut.
“And that whole paragraph about neighborly vengeance as a child? The turf wars between that 8-year-old neighbor and you and your brother?” Holy crap, cut that shit. Cut it all.
Sometimes the least likely audience is the most useful. Editing your work down to the sentences and ideas that move the narrative forward is a tricky business, but a necessary one. You don’t need to kill all your darlings, but most of them should probably go. Your readers won’t know them, and they certainly won’t miss them.
Everyone cares about the points you’re trying to make. Or they will, if you’ve done your job as a writer.
Everyone cares about a well-paced narrative, about explicit prose.
No one cares about puffery. No one cares about dancing with unnecessary detail, about the over-stimulated pageantry of storytelling, about the verbose, grandiose, perpetual tarantella of–
Right. I forgot to take the garbage out, and our kitchen is a mess.
No one cares about your dovetailing details. No one cares about your dog.
Jordan Wiklund is a writer and editor from St. Paul. His essays have been featured or are forthcoming from Pank, Fourth Genre, Versus, and elsewhere. Tweet him @JordanWiklund, or find him at the St. Paul Curling Club or Eagan wiffleball fields, depending on the season. Ask him about his dog.
April 19, 2013 § 2 Comments
First, let me tell you a little bit about why I love Donna Steiner.
I heard of her magisterial essay “Elements of the Wind,” first published in Fourth Genre, from essayist Patrick Madden, who marveled at a couple of tricks Steiner plays on her reader. One involves a copious list of different cultures’ names of the wind and the other breaks down the “two kinds of people in the world” dialectic. I won’t go into specifics because I don’t want to spoil either payoff. After reading the entire essay, I realized that these were just two of the many schematics Steiner makes use of; “Elements of the Wind,” in fact, draws most of its energy from a series of inversions, reversals, and recontextualized narratives and memories. To call them jokes would belie the critical and emotional heft at the center of the essay, but there’s something to the fact that I’m giving the review-speak version of “You just have to hear it.”
So instead of giving anything away directly, I’ll relate a personal experience. I’ve now taught “Elements of the Wind” to my freshman writing students for the past two years. My primary reason for this is to show them the multitude of possibilities inherent in the essay, a form that by college most of them have decided can only exist in five paragraphs and most would only write for a standardized writing exam.
Predictably, many of their responses to it can be summarized as, “Is this really an essay?”
Yonathan, one of my better students this year, came to my office recently to talk about his own personal struggle with “Elements of the Wind.” Another professor and I joke about Yonathan. We say he has the singular ability to make deeply profound observations while simultaneously looking like he’s about to bust out laughing. On this day, he wasn’t laughing.
“I’ve read the essay three times now,” he started, “and I don’t understand if she likes the wind or not.”
“Well,” I said, venturing in slowly, “What do you think?”
“It’s kind of tricky. I mean, on the one hand she makes all these lists of the gods named after the wind. But then she says,” and here Yonathan began skimming through his copy of the essay, “‘When it can’t be named, ascribe it to the gods.’ Which is it? Why does she give the wind all these names, and then say it can’t be named?”
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Well…” His brow furrowed, and a smile started to curl one side of his mouth. “I guess she might be saying that there are no real answers? Is she contradicting herself on purpose?”
“What do you think?”
“She does start the whole essay by saying you can’t say there are two kinds of people, that it’s too simplistic, then she says there are two kinds of people. And that whole thing with the big list of names for the wind—which I read, by the way—then saying there are people who read the list and people who skim over it. And she gives that—whatsitcalled—Beaufort Scale diagram about kinds of the wind, and she says that’s too simple: ‘The Beaufort Scale categorizes and concretizes what was once a subjective, almost abstract phenomenon: the movement of air. Imagine the magnitude of the accomplishment: naming the wind.’ So is she saying words and charts are too simple to describe the wind?”
I sat, looking at him.
“Then why did she even write the essay?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I started, “she’s writing about writing.”
“I thought she was writing about the wind?”
“Maybe she’s writing about both of those things.”
He was smiling on both sides of his mouth now. “I’m so confused,” he said, shaking his head.
This was one of my great teaching moments.
Now, let me tell you a little about Donna Steiner’s new essay chapbook, Elements. (Scroll down after clicking the link.) This is the first essay “chapbook” I’ve read, but I hope essay chapbooks turn into the next big trend in indie publishing. I’ve just ordered B.J. Hollars’s three-essay In Praise of Monsters, and have always loved Eula Biss’s One Story-inspired Essay Press, which publishes bound copies of novella-sized essays by Albert Goldbarth, Jenny Boully, and others. The chapbook has traditionally of course been the publishing realm of the poet, which has sustained my abiding love of poetry. I love going to a reading, being blown away by a poet’s work, buying the poet’s chapbook, and taking it home with me so I can later see the voice I loved hearing, transcribed on the page. Looking at my poetry section on my bookshelves now, I realize I have about three times as many chapbooks as full-length collections.
I’ve never heard Steiner read, but I can confidently say she has one of those voices you want to take home and savor, in small, slow, savory bites. Elements, a little blue square, can fit easily in most pant pockets (though probably not skinny jeans, yet another reason not to wear skinny jeans). It makes me think less of a book than that symbol of a bygone industry that still, only scant years since its demise, evokes a nostalgic twinge—the CD. It’s beautifully tactile—handbound, with a cover cutout of a square revealing a full moon. Opening the diminutive book reveals the moon in a sky over an ostensible illustration of “a freight train busting the night open,” from the closing line of “Elements of the Wind.”
The chapbook contains five essays, one about her alcoholic lover, another about a magnifying glass by which she detects elements of her world, another about a vaguely sexual prank phone caller, another about her sleeplessness, another about the wind. Each of them, whatever its ostensible subject, is as much an assemblage as a narrative, turning over each element in her palm and mulling it over with the care of a collector and the passion of a paramour. When I open it and take in Steiner’s masterful prose, and even when I simply open the book and hold it in my hands, I think not of a reading but of a conversation, of a voice offering no answers and telling no lies, but rather setting up the riddles so that every response, so long as it is honest, is the punchline.
John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. An active reader on the New York City open mic scene, he’s written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published in Diagram, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, Trouser Press, New York Cool, the Gotham Gazette, and the anthology Imagination & Place: Weather. He serves as Online Editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts, and teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at http://notthatjohnproctor.com/.
April 12, 2013 § 4 Comments
A guest post from Virginia Lloyd recapping last weekend’s Stalking the Essay Conference:
Phillip Lopate, who convened the inaugural “Stalking the Essay” conference on Saturday 6th April in his capacity as the director of Columbia University’s graduate nonfiction program, described his quarry as an “enigmatic beast,” both “ubiquitous and elusive.”
For any serious reader of essays the line-up of this conference was a dream. Gathered under the ornate roof of the Italian Academy on Amsterdam Avenue were the likes of Vivian Gornick, Michael Greenberg, Margo Jefferson, Patricia Hampl, Daniel Mendelsohn, Katha Pollitt, David Shields, Ned Stuckey-French and Colm Toibin. Even more miraculously, it was free.
After typing and scribbling from 10.00 am to 5.30 pm I drew these twin themes from the day’s discussions.
The necessity of doubt
Montaigne said, “If my mind could gain a firm footing I would not write essays, I would make decisions.” Thankfully for us he was the indecisive sort. His idea of the essay as the proper form for the doubting mind echoed through every panel session.
Phillip Lopate called the structure and strategies of the essay “mysterious,” remaining “receptive to doubt and self-doubt.” English professor Branca Arsić described Emerson’s essaying as “the writing of selfless undecidedness.” During the discussion “The Column as Essay,” law professor and columnist for The Nation, Patricia J Williams characterized her family tradition as being split between W. B. Dubois on one side and Emerson on the other. She contended that this twin intellectual path led her to think of the essay as “a way of giving voice to the experience of double vision.” Margo Jefferson, during the session “Criticism and the Essay,” invoked Marianne Moore’s idea of “accessibility to experience” to suggest the validity of “the kind of authority you can get at through ambivalence, uncertainty, a kind of vulnerability.”
Vivian Gornick, the author of eight books including the memoir-writing classic The Situation and the Story, spoke of having to learn to trust her own feelings in order to establish a reliable point of view, which she maintains is the key to writing essays. “I found that the point of view so necessary to a work should be breathing through the subject,” she said. How did she accomplish this? “I set myself the task of trying to understand how I felt in relation to the subject at hand, in order to bring some depth and authority to what I had to trust were legitimate feelings. I had to see what I was feeling in relation to the world.”
The essay as a self-dramatizing form
Colm Toibin described his initial reluctance to review the books about homosexuality that The London Review of Books began sending him. Once he began writing the reviews, he was surprised to discover that it gave him a way of “writing about himself without writing about himself.”
Daniel Mendelsohn observed that most of the conference panelists felt the need to begin autobiographically when talking about criticism, tracing the paths by which each found his or her footing in the essay form. He felt this reflected a kind of anxiety around the contemporary essayist’s authority. He traced this to technology, which has passed criticism into the hands of readers, and to pervasive commercialism, in which judgments about works of art have become reductive – yes or no, thumbs up or down.
“The essay is important because it is long,” Mendelsohn said. “I am in favor of length because it is a way of combating the reductiveness of so many forms of judgment circulating in culture. But also discursiveness is good. The critical essay ends with a judgment, but the drama of the form is how you arrive at your judgment, the argument of it. The form fights against its own conclusiveness. The expansiveness of the essay allows you to be both abstract and judgmental, but it is deeply subjective because it’s your judgment. The way that you arrive at your judgment, the way by which you form your conclusions – that is how you become yourself on the page. What is interesting is what I can do only in a long essay, which is to understand why I think the way that I do about the thing I am writing about.”
The essay, which enacts the drama of the divided self in its very form, seems particularly well suited to our age of anxiety, in which none of us claims or wishes to claim total confidence or authority in the subjects we write about. Phillip Lopate confessed during the conference that it was his dream to establish a Center for the Essay at Columbia. If the popularity of “Stalking the Essay” is anything to go by, he may well get his wish.
Virginia Lloyd is an author, essayist and literary agent with a blog at www.virginialloyd.com.
April 10, 2013 § 8 Comments
Stephanie Bane, author of “We Have Peace” in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay and on sincerity, naiveté, and the importance of faith.
The sincerity of my essay – We Have Peace – embarrasses me. The unabashed patriotism, the near-total lack of irony, make me seem unsophisticated, a fool. It’s an essay I wouldn’t like if someone else wrote it. If someone else wrote it, and I read it one Sunday morning, perusing Brevity over my first cup of coffee, I’d get angry. I’d spend half the day crafting a terse response about the role of the US in supporting the despots of Africa and the Middle East. I’d point out that the US stands behind Idriss Déby, the current “president” of Chad, a dictator who seems like a reasonable man only when you compare him to Hissène Habré, the man he replaced. And that Habré, “Africa’s Pinochet,” now on trial now in Senegal for crimes against humanity, also received support from the US throughout his genocidal reign.
Further, I’d have to mention – if the character limit in the comments section allowed it – that Chadians know this. We Americans may choose to remain ignorant of the way our tax dollars are spent abroad, but in a country as poor as Chad, the gross military spending that has gone on there for decades stands out.
So the way I’ve portrayed American ideals, and the Chadian response to them in my essay – could suggest to some that I’ve got the critical thinking skills of a first grader, and that my Chadian students were equally naïve. That was not the case – plenty of my students were politically sophisticated enough to ask the next questions. Why does the US hoard the peace? Why the contradiction between your commitment to maintaining peace on your own country, and your role in undermining it, in ours? None of them asked. Chadians are extremely polite hosts; I’m sure that was part of it. I was a guest, with obviously good intentions. Some Peace Corps volunteers could be mistaken for CIA agents – not me. I was far too hapless, my language skills too poor.
That afternoon with Jimmy Carter has remained vivid in my mind for the almost twenty years since it happened. It stands out now, in the context of the rest of my thinking, and writing, as singularly positive. It’s a tone break in the memoir I’m writing about my time in Chad. The rest of the manuscript is dark, because while I was in Chad, a gap opened up – a gap between the world as I believed it to be, and the world as it truly was. I’ve wandered this ravine ever since, unable – unwilling -to commit myself to either side.
So what does this, small, hopeful memory signify? Three years ago I heard Yann Martel speak at the Heinz Lecture Series in Pittsburgh. He said something that so directly challenged my wandering, my state of being lost, that I wrote it down. He said “Faith is the engine of humanity. Not just religious faith: faith in anything. Faith in a loved one, faith in what you’re doing. You have to believe in something for it to work.”
I no longer believe in God. I don’t have faith in the decisions of my government, and I certainly don’t believe in the actions of the CIA, an organization that perpetrates one crime after another under the banner of democracy. But I can – and do – believe in democracy. I believe in the ideal. I’m ashamed of what my country has done in places like Chad, and the DRC. But I cry when I vote, because the ideal has been realized in so many ways here at home. My essay – embarrassing in its sincerity, uncomfortably earnest, is an expression of my faith in democracy – in the power it can have when people claim it for themselves. If we believe in it, it will work.
Stephanie Bane is an account planner in an ad agency in Pittsburgh, and a recent graduate of Pacific University’s MFA program. She’s currently working on a manuscript about the time she spent in Chad. This is her first appearance in a literary journal.
April 9, 2013 § 1 Comment
Lori May, author of “With and Without Care” in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay. merging experience, and the quotidian in nonfiction:
I grew up paying little attention to health care. Health insurance was something I took for granted, as many Canadians do, since it was a given part of my birthright, not unlike maple syrup and hockey.
Everything changed when I crossed the border with a fiancée visa in hand and married my American-born husband. Within days of my move, while cardboard boxes still scattered every room of our house, we were legally wed in a downtown Detroit courtroom. Romantic? Yes, in some ways. But our timely ceremony was a necessary step in my immigration. It also provided insurance. Or, rather, it provided my legal title as ‘spouse’ so that I would be covered immediately under my husband’s health insurance.
He was more concerned than I that bad timing and a lack of paperwork would leave us in a bind. I was not yet fully versed in how the system works here. He knew. My spouse grew up with the understanding that to receive medical care, one must be skilled in filing forms, have advanced knowledge in which professionals fall under in- and out-of-network coverage , and feel over-insured while also never fully being covered for everything. This was a strange adjustment for me and continues to be.
My experiences as a Canadian-American have aroused a number of questions, prompted cultural commentary from others (“you’re not really am immigrant; you’re just from Canada”), and, of course, inspired a number of essays. I enjoy exploring the differences in my two home countries, as well as the commonalities, yet when it comes to health care I still don’t know what’s better, what’s worse. Maybe I never will. But I like to ask questions.
In “With and Without Care,” I wanted to show health care concerns and experiences outside of my own. My first draft of this essay had a more linear narrative and was weighted with my own angle. Yet in working on a book-length collection of essays, an immigration memoir in shorts, I have discovered that merging my experiences with those of others is infinitely more interesting. It adds complexity. It allows me to explore what I see of myself in others, in connecting the dots across humanity.
In “Quotidian Nonfiction,” (Creative Nonfiction, Issue #44 Spring 2012), Patrick Madden shares his pleasure in uncovering those everyday moments that are, most often, lacking in shock value, yet still inspire him to write:
“Perhaps this is because my own life so rarely excites even me; I could never win over readers through shock or exoticism. No matter. I prefer, in both my writing and in my reading, meditative material that considers the quotidian, that pauses and ponders, moving slowly, calmly—the kind of work that would never incite a controversy, work that balances intellect and emotion, with perhaps a bit of spirit.”
In “With and Without Care,” and throughout my collection-in-progress, I’m using my personal experiences of culture adjustment as a prompt to connect those dots. Rather than plainly narrate what I see and experience as a newcomer, I’m reflecting on my migration and emergence to seek ways to identify with others—and, perhaps, new ways to identify myself.
Lori A. May is the author of The Low-Residency MFA Handbook. Her essays and reviews may be found online with publications such as Passages North, The Iowa Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Connotation Press, and New Orleans Review. Canadian by birth and disposition, she now calls Michigan home. Visit her at www.loriamay.com.
April 8, 2013 § 1 Comment
Stated Magazine, a new site featuring “the stories of creative and inspirational people,” is sharing an interview with Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore wherein he discusses the genesis of the magazine, his thoughts on nonfiction, and the background of the anthology, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction.
Turns out he didn’t think it would last:
I never imagined it would survive more than a year or two. It was a lark. I was more interested in teaching myself web design, frankly, than I was in the idea of the magazine.
And he isn’t real fond of his own efforts at web design:
For the first 15 years, I did all of the design and HTML-coding myself. Just this past year, I hired a web designer to make us a WordPress layout, and I’m very happy with how that looks. The artwork is provided by a different guest artist or photographer each issue now. If you look at some earlier issues, the artwork was rather hodgepodge, including quite a few of my own photographs. The early issues are horrendous to look at, design-wise. This has been very much a DIY magazine
But he likes the process of editing and being edited:
In my experience, the more experienced and professional an author is, the more grateful he or she is for good editing. I know I feel that way when an editor works with me to improve my own work. So no, I haven’t really encountered many strong disagreements on either end of the writer-editor relationship. Sometimes there is some vigorous back and forth, in order to get a sentence or word exactly right, but it is almost always a fruitful back and forth.he likes
April 4, 2013 § 4 Comments
Pablo Piñero Stillmann, author of Life, Love, Happiness: A Found Essay from the Twitterverse in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of his essay and his peculiar fear of The Screen:
Every few months I have a panic attack re: The Death of Literature and/or The Death of the Book and/or The Screen Completely Taking Over Our Lives and/or You Get the Point. Even though the symptoms of these attacks are always kind of the same—anxiety, dread, pacing back and forth in my bedroom regretting a decade committed to The Obsolete, compulsive podcast-listening, etc.—my reactions/neurotic solutions to them are ever-changing.
For example, I once wrote a short story that I really liked. (This happens .0034% of the times I write a short story.) My reactions to writing this piece were, Hooray, I wrote a short story I’m proud of. Too bad short stories don’t exist anymore. I might as well have become really good at Atari. I’m a complete failure.[i] So as I took a nervous walk in the upstate New York woods, completely lost (figuratively), I called a friend and asked her to convince me that Literature was not yet dead. “Talk me down,” I told her, as I’ve told so many of those close to me before and since then. “God save you if you talk me down.”
Sometimes I respond to my fears by just lying in bed or eating a lot or both (a.k.a. feeling so, so sorry for myself). At one point I completely freaked out and decided to stop reading and writing fiction forever, a vow which lasted for almost a year. But come with me to the other end of the spectrum: sometimes I respond with an angry defiance. If I want to be A Serious Writer—I thought in the summer of 2012, during one of these waves (tsunamis) of self doubt—I must not ignore The Screen, but rather wrestle with The Screen, become one with The Screen. (Mina Loy: “[T]he Future is only dark from outside. Leap into it—and it EXPLODES with Light.”) My way of facing The Screen, instead of continuing to run from it, tears and snot covering my face, was to edit a series of found essays from the twitterverse, of which “Life, Love, Happiness” was the first.[ii]
The strangest thing I realized after spending hours scrolling through hundreds of strangers’ tweets was that Twitter has a voice— a self-centered, scared, aggressive voice that wants to come off as funny. (As I write this I feel a bit of anxiety about Twitter completely doing away with humor.) I learned while gathering the material for the piece that 72.8% of all tweets are about Justin Bieber. Also, the process of “Life, Love, Happiness” taught me that a good number of tweets are about being in love with someone or being dumped by someone or dumping someone or a friend not understanding s/he needed to dump her/his certain someone. In short, tweeters be triflin’. (I’m almost certain I’m not using that word correctly.) We’re all so horribly alone and Twitter seems to be a good escape valve for that feeling.
But don’t get me wrong— I’ve enjoyed being a Twitter voyeur. Behind all that anger, snark, humblebragging and selfies of duck faces is a deep sadness and a feeling of being adrift that I completely relate to. Even though big chunks of the twitterverse are only concerned with Unimportant Superficialities, deep down all tweeters are human and most of the time they can’t help but to let it show. The Screen, like anything, looks scary and evil from afar, but vulnerable and playful once you get it into the ring.
March 29, 2013 § 4 Comments
Meg Rains, author of “The Memory of My Disappearance“ in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay and the need to sometimes drop the story line:
It was my first date with J., and I talked for over three hours. About my mother. I was desperate and excited to explain myself. Or maybe I was just nervous. In any case, he finally swooped in for a kiss just to shut me up. You don’t have to tell me everything tonight, he said.
I’ve always been clumsy telling the tale: She was my best friend; had a psychotic break; disappeared for more than a decade; left me heartsick and grief-struck. For years I was tangled in nothing but story. Then she reappeared—this very familiar stranger—with only six months to live. I brought her to me; bore witness; knew that those moments in the nursing home made me the luckiest girl in the world.
J. may well have been The Little Dutch Boy; dam(n) this narrative, please.
Plenty of writers focus on getting the first draft down, and then going back in to comb and craft. But that makes me anxious. As if confronting reams of familial footage in some darkened theatre with a burned-out exit sign. (Whoa, that was melodramatic—which would likely be the outcome if I tried to work that way.)
For a long time, I didn’t know how to work with the material at all. So I didn’t. I read. I stared out every available window. Took lots of walks. And naps. I collected sentence fragments and word lists; made collages with paper and paint and glue. I decided to be gentle on myself; consider it all processing.
Finally, two things got my momentum going. The first was an art exhibit where everything was 5” x 5”—paintings, sculptures, framed flash fictions. It all seemed so manageable, you know, emotionally. It was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird in action.
The second was something my friend Joshua Poteat once said about his writing process: “Collect notes on most anything… amass a large amount of random items… try to cram a bunch of it into a piece by removing its context and make it work all together.”
Those sentence fragments started to come in handy. So I’d pick out a few at a time and, rather than building the narrative, I’d attempt to frame up a feeling, which I soon realized was akin to trapping the ephemeral.
In Start Where You Are, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön suggests that we “… begin to drop the story line and experience what all this messy stuff behind the story line feels like.” She’s referring to ways of living, of course. Though, I love this idea in the context of writing.
What use is a storyteller who drops the story line? I use this question as a kōan to consider each time I sit down to work. These days, I’m finding comfort in the process, which generally looks like this: slouch back / lean forward / slide out / rearrange. Whether this refers to my writing or my posture depends upon the day.
Meg Rains grew up in Little Rock, Ark.; dropped out of music school; graduated from Emerson College; worked in advertising, the arts, psychiatry, philanthropy, et al.; took an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts; and nowadays lives in Richmond, Va., where she nine-to-fives in an office park.
March 28, 2013 § 28 Comments
“In the past few years, I’ve bought eighty-one leather jackets. Dozens of boots and leather gloves. I’ve purchased pants that cost $5,000. I own a $22,000 coat. This winter I took a tour of Milan’s Fashion Week (all expenses paid by Gucci, in appreciation of my many, many purchases), where I spent tens of thousands more and began to seriously grapple, once and for all, with a compulsion that could cost me more than just my life savings. My name is Buzz Bissinger. I am 58 years old, the best-selling author of ‘Friday Night Lights,’ father of three, husband. And I am a shopaholic.” — Buzz Bissinger
The Internet is a-twitter with talk about Buzz Bissinger’s essay, “My Gucci Addiction,” published by GQ just recently. This is confessional writing at it’s most, well, confessional. Bissinger details not only his shopping addiction, which is itself almost mind-bendingly self-indulgent (a $22,000 coat?), but also his struggles with sexuality, marriage, and bipolar disorder.
In a statement to NBC, Bissinger says he wrote the essay “because it was the only way I knew of coming to terms and getting the help I am getting now. I have no regrets about what I wrote but I also have nothing to add.” Bissinger has, according the not-always-reliable Internet, entered rehab for his shopping addiction since the publication of the piece.
This has us wondering about the purpose of audience in addiction memoir. If Bissinger wrote this piece not to communicate something to his readers, but instead to communicate his own desperation and need for intervention to the people around him who could intervene where the reader can’t, then how are we as an audience to understand it? As spectacle? As plea? As a step toward accountability? When the addiction memoir is written by an active addict, what is the ethical reader response?
We’d like to know what you think. Please respond in the comments below.