October 3, 2014 § 9 Comments
A guest post from our friend Nina Gaby:
At a recent writer’s workshop on short form essay writing I scuffled to the edge of my chair, the proverbial ADHD kid, as if I knew all about the idea that had only made a half sentence out of the workshop leader’s mouth. The ever patient Barbara Hurd, the workshop leader, was recapping a craft article from September’s Writer’s Chronicle by Sean Ironman where he describes the z-axis in essay writing. This is an article that I had not read much less heard of, but I had already figured out the moment she began to talk. “Pick me! Pick me!” I waved from my seat. Just the mere suggestion of an axis that spanned a third dimension was too much for me to quietly bear alone.
Ironman describes the process of artist Joe Rivera. The award winning cartoonist Rivera often talks of moving his paintbrush not only up and over along the obvious x and y axes of the page, but also up and away from the page– the z axis. “The z-axis is the artist’s distance from the page,” I would later read. “When the brush is kept close, the mark is thick and dark. The farther away the brush is from the page, the thinner the mark. Altering the thickness and darkness of a line gives the image perspective, depth.”  So the axis must continue, I extrapolate. Not just past and present but through. Piercing the heart of the page. I totally know this, I think, I’ve just not heard it put quite this way. It’s just like what I do as a therapist, like what I did as an art student. Like what I’m trying to do as an editor.
Hurd used this as a means to explore the craft of the short essay, reminding us that the obvious story was very different from the real story, depending on the writer’s distance from the page. Yeah, yeah, I read Gornick, I am impatient. I know the difference between the situation and the story. But then she told a workshop participant whose words were just shared that she still hadn’t exposed the real story. I got uncomfortable at that, stopped waving my hand. How many times have I let the real story slip by? “Keep going,” said Hurd. Deeper.
I move the mental brush back and forth, up and down, as I generalize this to the process of editing, which I had just spent two months doing. I am a somewhat neophyte essayist, putting together my own anthology, and by virtue of that, becoming a neophyte editor.
But I am not a neophyte psychotherapist. Nor am I a neophyte artist. I know about the pressure on a line, the quality of a shadow, when the z-axis may be too close to the bone, when to draw back. Too much. Too little. It’s all about the contract we have with the subject – be it image or patient or essay contributor. Splice, slice, dice. With permission, of course. Find the connective tissue. Respect the data and the discomfort. I found myself doing the same thing with the 24 essays handed to me by the contributors of my anthology. At first I’m not even sure I know what I’m doing. Then I realize – it’s the same thing I always do.
My first day back from the writer’s conference I entered my workplace, my “real job,” to find a handwritten letter left for me by a patient who had been discharged while I was gone. “Thank you for helping me save my life.” Note I didn’t save the patient’s life, as if I were an EMT in the field shoring up blood or a surgeon in the operating room splicing pieces together. My contract intact – I just helped.This, the very same day that I prepared my anthology’s final manuscript, gathering together all that data for the publisher.
And the contract is the same, the parallels obvious as I wave excitedly from my imaginary seat. “Here,” says the patient, the writer, “I offer you my words, I offer you my narrative, I offer you my history.” The patient’s own thoughts, like the writer’s own words, may just need some help searing a path through the extraneous tissue, a flashlight along the z axis, getting to the vital energy at the heart of their matter. Sean Ironman, Writing the Z-Axis: Reflection in the Nonfiction Workshop, The Writer’s Chronicle,September 2014
Nina Gaby is a past contributor to the Brevity blog. By day she is a psychiatric nurse practitioner, and the rest of the time a writer, visual artist, serial television addict and sometimes blogger at www.ninagaby.com. Her anthology, Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women,which includes two flash essays, is being published in early 2015 by She Writes Press.
October 1, 2014 § 9 Comments
A guest post from Samantha Tucker Iacovetto:
There is this leaning in that happens when I read an ideal essay. It’s like peering over the gilded edge of the Grand Canyon; like stepping on tip-toe to secret out the scent of my husband’s glorious beard; like pressing my nose to the glass at the zoo’s lion exhibit, his breath and mine steaming the opposite sides of the barrier.
When an essayist like, say, Lia Purpura drops the reader into a space like that—a space that is a precipice, a tipping point, a long and unblinking gaze into an unassuming sugar egg—I lean in, and succumb to the vertigo.
“Lean in!” My mother barks through the phone when I lament the stresses of graduate school, of teaching college composition, of finding time to write something that beckons. She is full of handy and irritating blue-collar colloquialisms: “Self-responsibility!” “You better look at the man in the mirror!” “Don’t put all those eggs in one basket!” Now I find myself weaving her philosophies in and out of the classes I teach, where I insist rhetoric and composition is not just a mandatory class on writing, but instead, a conduit for social activism. Her philosophies demanded me a place in academia, accompany the family histories I record, and guided me away from the manifest destinies of a small town upbringing, a food-stamped childhood, a drug-addicted father.
I once read not to lean towards something but, instead, away from everything else. The library in Fountain, Colorado, insists on metaphor: it waits between the two sets of railroad tracks that dissect my town into “rich” and “poor.” Reading was the one-way ticket out.
Now that I’m gone, I find myself constantly looking, leaning back in the other direction.
Joan Didion says to “keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.” I nod in autoethnographic ways; I situate the history of a family—from a military town with a crumbling red, white and blue façade—in a universal, cultural context. Throughout my search for causalities, I keep on nodding terms in this way: wherever I’ve lived in the past ten years, I have put up a large National Geographic map. I pinpoint our latitudes and longitudes. At once we are—were—global, my family and I: my mother in Fountain, my sister at a Naval base in Spain, me and my husband teaching in South Korea, my brother—then, now, forever—in Iraq.
An ideal essay is hard to define, but easy to point to. An ideal essay mines the “I” in efforts of high exposition. It is driven by a need to testify or witness, and demands the same of its reader. It is a glimpse of something uncomfortably recognizable, a requiem for the quotidian, a look over the newly-gilded edge.
And so, I read—I write: to keep on nodding terms, to examine the arc of my, of our, leanings.
Samantha Tucker Iacovetto is a nonfiction MFA candidate at (The!) Ohio State University. She has written for the Colorado Review blog, Show Business Weekly, and Springs Magazine. Sam’s first collection of essays, The American Dream Starts Here, is nearly finished—and in need of a publisher.
September 30, 2014 § 1 Comment
A guest post from the founder and editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies: Karen Babine:
Here’s something I’ve learned over the past three weeks, since the first issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies went live: Google Analytics is my new favorite form of entertainment. In realtime, I can watch how many people are on the site, where they’re located, and how much time they’re spending on each page. When I worked for Mid-American Review and we gave away free copies at AWP, it was a thrill to walk by somebody perched in a chair in a hallway, reading the magazine, flipping the pages, and it was always hard to resist the urge to interrupt and ask what they were reading, what they thought about it. There was a conversation happening between page and reader that I could see—and the same is happening here, even though it’s not paper. Google Analytics is my new version of walking-by-somebody-reading—and this is a good thing.
Assay is designed to be a space where all perspectives on the genre are not only welcomed, but celebrated. Nonfiction is claimed by composition and rhetoric, and literature, as much as it is by creative writing. We have more to gain by talking with each other than we do by insisting on a hierarchy of who owns the fourth genre. The seed idea for the journal came out of the realization of just how much critical work is being asked of our creative writing graduate students, especially in PhD programs, with little published nonfiction scholarship for them to draw on—and fewer opportunities to publish what they produce. The idea of nonfiction studies incorporates more than creative writing workshops; it must include nonfiction-as-literature and nonfiction-as-rhetoric/composition, as well as dedicated space to consider the theory and pedagogy of the nonfiction classroom. Often critical introductions are the only place these discussions happen—I’m thinking of Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, even the state-of-the-art introductions to the year’s Best American Essays—and as a result, they are separate notes, to be played individually. Or, even worse, they are the staccato or tenuto that tells us how the note is to be played, never truly part of the composition.
We take the journal’s name from a quote from Minnesotan essayist Paul Gruchow, who wrote that “There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this. Places can be claimed but never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained. You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place.” This idea of the essay (to try) and assay (to test) forms the basis for the philosophy of the journal and what we want to see in the work we publish. The goal of Assay is to test and analyze the nonfiction texts we read, to attempt our determinations of their ingredients and quality.
Maybe it’s how my brain works, this core belief that there are many different—and right—ways to explore the questions and curiosities in front of us. Sometimes putting on G.K. Chesterton’s hat feels right—but sometimes, we want to go running after that hat with Derrida or Ursula Heise. We envision Assay to be a space for short pieces that come out of “I never thought about it that way before” moments, musings of the brain on nonfiction subjects and texts that aren’t represented in current publications. We hear in passing what a colleague is doing in a class, perhaps an old hat like first-year writing or something narrow and specialized, classes we wish we could sit in the back row and observe. Maybe we have heard of Writing Marathons, but we have no idea how to implement them in our classes (stay tuned to the spring issue for this). In another sphere, our TAs often receive excellent pedagogical support for teaching composition, but creative writing pedagogy is much rarer. (It’s a long-term goal to compile a syllabi bank, like ASLE has collated for environmental studies, so look for that initiative in the future.)
A couple of days ago, I posted to Assay’s blog and asked which volumes of Best American Essays are your favorites—and today, on another Facebook page, Donna Steiner asked who we’d like to see as a future editor. These are the kind of organic conversations that Assay wants to foster, on our blog and discussion boards (as well as Facebook and Twitter), as reactions to what we publish as well as realtime issues and questions within nonfiction studies. (For instance, Derek Hinckley’s Riff on Alison Bechdel appears in our first issue—and Bechdel just won a MacArthur Genius Grant.) To take advantage of these opportunities, we are launching several between-the-issues initiatives, one of which is a dedicated series of guest posts to our blog. Karen Craigo’s guest pedagogy post, on the ethics of teaching your own work, is a good example of what we’re going to be looking for.
Another between-the-issues initiative we’re excited about is our In the Classroom project, and we’re looking to compile pedagogy resources, available to anyone teaching nonfiction, from creative writing to journalism to literature to rhetoric. We are also seeking syllabi for courses in creative writing pedagogy (we are going to be most interested in those geared toward nonfiction, but multi-genre courses are acceptable). We want this to be a community resource, to start and sustain conversations about what we’re doing in the classroom.
Being online gives us a platform to engage with each other in ways that traditional paper does not—though I did not want to lose the link to paper, so we include printable PDFS with each piece we publish. While there’s no way to track how many people read a particular work printed on a book’s page, I can see exactly how many hits a particular page gets and know that 300+ people have read Wendy Fontaine’s article on the neuroscience of memory and its effects on memoir. Ned Stuckey-French’s terrific essay-on-the-essay has (as of this posting) received more than 1800 hits, according to Google Analytics.
So, welcome to the first issue of Assay! We’re very excited about the depth and breadth of perspectives and voices, from traditional literary scholarship to looser forms, from interviews to pedagogy. Submissions are open for the spring issue, which will go live on March 1st, 2015, and there are a lot of truly exciting submissions coming in already—and we hope that you will add us to your list of publishing venues, for yourself as well as for your students. Forward us to colleagues in your department outside of creative writing, whoever might be teaching nonfiction texts. We’re looking for representations that come out of ethnic literature courses, critical theory courses, and other sources of conversations we should all be a part of. If you have a great class discussion, write it up for Assay (or suggest to a student that s/he do so). While we don’t have a firm submissions deadline for the spring issue, January 1st is a good benchmark.
In the meantime, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, subscribe to the magazine on the website. Feel free to let us know what you’d like to see in future issues, how we can better serve your work as a writer and reader, as teachers and students.
September 25, 2014 § 6 Comments
Lynette D’Amico on the origin of her essay Faithful, found in the newest issue of Brevity:
So the was turns to is, in whatever one writes.—Marianne Boruch
When a dear friend’s mother was in hospice at home, dying of ovarian cancer, she asked me to come. We are both daughters of Italian mothers. Of course I came. This was in late summer. We mark our friendship by cigarettes: the years of sneaking around with cigarettes, the years we smoked together, the years since we quit smoking. Her parents’ house was out in the dense oak and hickory woods of Jefferson County, Missouri, out of cell phone range. We took the night shift, staying up all night with her mother as she diminished further and farther. The progression toward death is already disorienting, add to that: disconnection from the outside world, our exhaustion, the Italian propensity to express grief in anger and blame: sad-mad, mad-sad—we were out of our minds. We ate handfuls of black licorice during the long nights, both of us wanting a cigarette, the bitter-sweet bite of licorice a solace on the tongue.
My own Italian mother would be dead by spring. I talked to my mother every day. If I missed her call, she would leave me long, chatty messages, often multiple messages. After her death I realized I still had all these saved messages from her, more immediate than photographs, as effective at transporting me into her presence as the nearly empty bottle of Jean Naté cologne I kept on my bedside table.
I’m primarily a fiction writer, but I get a little bored by plot, narrative: this happened and then this happened. I’m a sucker for language, image, the rhythm of a phrase. At first draft, meaning, if any, is secondary, not the point. The point is bald, gasping beauty. Like Annie Dillard says, “I wanted beauty bare of import; I liked language in strips like pennants.” With “Faithful,” I started with the phone: the disconnected phone during the dying of my friend’s mother, no cell phone service, the saved phone messages from my mother.
Because I’m a writer, how I try to make sense of the world is through words. Of course, words are completely inadequate to make sense of grief, to make sense of the terrible loss of our Italian mothers. But I had to try anyway. In earlier drafts I went through the three stages of memoir, what poet and memoirist Rigoberto Gonzalez refers to as “the sentimentality of nostalgia, … the low-emotion in anecdote, and … the frivolousness of crowd-pleasing storytelling.”
I remembered a line from Maira Kalman’s wonderful book that illustrates a year in her life, The Principles of Uncertainty, about the death of her own mother: “She is no longer alive, and it is impossible to bear.” What more needed to be said? That line became a version of the refrain in “Faithful”:
“The impossibility that she is dead.”
“How impossible it is that she is dead.”
“It is impossible that she is dead.”
“The impossibility of her dead.”
I transcribed my mother’s phone messages. She died in April, ten days after Easter. There were still Easter cuccidate she had made in the freezer.
Like the slipperiness of grief itself—expanding, contracting, laying low, and then wham! You think you can go to the grocery store and walk by the escarole, the green and purple grapes, and not think of your mother’s table? I couldn’t come to a resting place with this piece, not to an end point, but a pause point: stop here for a little while, look around, go for a walk, wash a dish. Sentences, paragraphs, went on and on. There would be no end to it. No relief. Punctuation marks stabbed me. The white space on the page was a gaping hole I fell into again and again. Every time I came to the page my friend’s mother, my mother was dying over and over again.
In James Longenbach’s brilliant essay, “All Changed,” about the effect of tense shifts in poetry and prose, from his book The Virtues of Poetry, he says in regard to the poem “Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats:
…the simple present tense produces a timeless presence. …the poem is looking at events that occurred in the past, but something is happening right now, in the time it takes to speak the words of the poem.
In my own clumsy way, I wanted to try narrating a past event from present tense, or the intrusion of the present tense into a past tense narrative, so the phone is still ringing in the last line. It is happening right now. Do you hear it?
Lynette D’Amico earned her MFA in fiction at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She has published work previously in Brevity and The Gettysburg Review. She is the content editor for howlround.com.
September 24, 2014 § 1 Comment
Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories by MariNaomi, out this month from Uncivilized Books, is a graphic memoir comprised of brief essays drawn and told in a sparse style, but taken as a whole, they create a complex and lovely picture of a life. Many of the vignettes were first published on the online magazine The Rumpus as the series, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
MariNaomi agreed to answer a few questions for Brevity about the work, and I was particularly interested in the ways in which graphic memoir coincides with other forms of brief creative nonfiction and how the author deals with the nonfictional in her artwork.
SE: In a statement in the front of Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories, you say “These stories are memoir, which means that each one is only as true as the author’s memory is reliable.” I’m thinking that veracity must be particularly tricky in graphic memoir. Can you talk about the choices you make both in writing and in design, and whether you feel the need to be more “truthful” in one or the other?
MariNaomi: In 2005, I drew a comic about a dog mauling that occurred in San Francisco that resulted in a woman’s death. I did a ton of research to make sure everything was accurate, reading countless articles and one terribly written book, poring over police crime photos, figuring out the layout of the crime scene. I even drove by the building where the mauling took place. The ten-page comic took almost a year for me to draw, a year of staring at horrific images. It wasn’t a fun year, but I was proud of how accurate the comic was, in the end. But I’ll probably never illustrate someone else’s experience again, as it was terribly exhausting.
For my own stories, I follow my memory paths, and sometimes fill in the blanks by consulting photos, diaries and friends or family who were there. This means that I don’t get nearly as many facts right.
I know that other memoirists are all over the place on this subject. Alison Bechdel, for example, holds the specifics in high regard, whereas Liz Prince has compared memoir to historical fiction. Personally, I want to be completely emotionally honest in my comics, and also convey a time and a place, but the physical details beyond that are unimportant to me. I mean, who cares if I get a date wrong, or if I can’t remember where each Duran Duran poster was placed on my bedroom walls? I’m not on trial, and I’m not a historical figure, so the minutiae seems irrelevant. I do draw the line on fudging experiences, though. I’ll never write that I had an experience that never happened to me.
That said, every time I purposefully alter the truth (like combining characters or incidents in order to tell a more succinct story), I toil over it a lot. And every time I write and draw a story and am later told “That’s not what really happened” by someone else who was there, I feel a little bit ashamed. But you know, everyone sees an event from their own unique perspective, so that’s bound to happen.
SE: So much of this book is about loss–loss of home, loss of love, loss of safety. There are a number of elegiac pieces in the book, such as “What’s New, Pussycat?” “Mr. Vanoni,” and “Coalinga.” I was struck by the grace with which you bring tiny moments to life and how effectively these tiny moments stand in for the longer, fuller life lived and seemed in some ways to be teaching me, as the reader, how to understand the larger work. How I should see the tiny vignettes from your own life as serving as glimpses meant to stand for the whole. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the craft of building a memoir out of these tiny moments in a way that creates such a beautiful sense of something larger than what is on the page? You have managed that so very well here.
MariNaomi: Thank you! That’s really nice to hear.
A fellow cartoonist once told me that the whole point of drawing was to create an image using the fewest brush strokes or lines possible. I didn’t necessarily agree with his idea in terms of artwork–sometimes lots of lines/detail is the way to go, sometimes a minimalist technique gets the point across better–but I do agree with that idea when it comes to storytelling. And graphic storytelling is a fantastic medium in which to pare down a story. Not all pictures are worth a thousand words, but it’s worth it to me to try to show a reader complex emotions and situations using the smallest of details–a slight smile here, a defeated posture there. Reading a graphic book can often go much faster than a book filled with just words, however I believe that an attentive reader will absorb just as much information in the same amount of pages, if it’s done right. Which is good, because drawing a book takes so much longer than writing one!
SE: I first discovered your work in XOJane, where you published “It Happened To Me: I Was Sexually Harassed On Stage At A Comic Convention Panel.” Could you talk a little bit about your experience writing for an audience that at least sometimes seems hostile to, or at least dismissive of, people of color, women, and LGBTQ folk? I know you promote the work of LGBTQ and POC cartoonists, and I’d like to know more about that work.
MariNaomi: That panel was a bit of an anomaly for me, as it’s rare for me to interact with the mainstream comics world (my harasser is a writer for DC Comics). I’ve heard that sexism and homophobia is rampant in the indie scene, as well, but honestly, I’ve seen very little of that first-hand. Maybe that’s why I was so shocked by that incident, enough to write an essay about it. (The other harassment I mention in the article also happened with someone I consider a mainstream artist.)
Since that article came out, I’ve met a lot of mainstream comics creators, and overall they’ve been really supportive. But I’ve also gotten a glimpse into a whole lot of sexism and misogyny that I probably wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t stepped forward like that, and I’ve found it very unsettling. It’s kind of similar to what some people have been going through since Ferguson got on the news. Many folks weren’t aware there was still such a problem with racism in this country. If it’s not in your face on a regular basis, it’s easy to forget that it exists.
But I digress.
I’m not writing for a hostile audience of racists and trolls (I couldn’t care less what a misogynist thinks of my work), I’m doing it for people who are open to the experience of others, who want to be better people but maybe don’t always know how to go about it (like me). People who get that compassion is something you have to work at your whole life, and are willing to try (and forgive themselves when they slip into judgment). If you read the “news” or read the comments section in a feminist article, it’s easy to think that compassion is a dying thing. But I don’t think so. I’m keeping the hope alive.
And of course, compassion is the only thing that can kill off ignorant hate. And visibility helps foster compassion, right? That’s what’s at the root of my projects, the Cartoonists of Color database and the LGBTQ Cartoonists database. At first glance they’re just lists of names and links and maybe a little information. But if you delve into it, you can get lost in the work of all those amazing, diverse creators. I get lost in it everyday.
SE: Graphic memoir and biography seems to do a particularly good job of telling complex, difficult stories. I’m thinking of Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, and of course you. I wonder if you could talk about why the genre is so well-suited to untangling complexity without mitigating or obscuring it. (If that’s too grad school sounding, please reword. I spent an hour trying to make this question less awful. Ten of those minutes were spent trying to decide whether or not to take Spiegelman off the list.)
MariNaomi: I’m not sure that comics are a better way to tell complex, personal stories, it’s just another medium in which to do so. If you delve into the genre of graphic memoir, you’ll find plenty of badly told personal stories, I assure you. And there are many amazingly complex stories that are told in the form of essays, paintings, photographs, music, collage, sonnets, etc.
I’ve been writing about my life in comics form since the 1990s, but autobiographical comics seem to be getting more attention now than ever. I expect the fad will pass eventually, just like any other. But in the meantime, as long it’s popular, we (as memoir-loving readers) are lucky that more creators will be making and publishing quality work.
Sarah Einstein is the Fiction Editor for Stirrings and a PhD student at Ohio University. Her work has appeared in journals including PANK, Ninth Letter, and The Sun and been awarded a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net. Her first book, Mot: A Memoir, is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press and the recipient of this year’s AWP Prize.
September 18, 2014 § 2 Comments
We received an e-mail this morning, and are tempted to think it may be a joke, but probably not. Well, Name Redacted, here we are barely two weeks into September and we have upwards of 350 essays to read and respond to in a timely manner. Our [unpaid] editor-in-chief is doing WordPress code for a new issue, starting the NEA grant process so we can pay authors more money, planning a 2015 fundraising month, balancing our meager checkbook, choosing visual artists for the next two issues, tracking down a recent spam attack, coordinating the transfer of 14 back years of issues into the new format, and trying to survive as a writer/teacher himself. No, Name Redacted, we don’t have time to wax philosophic about “the philosophic, social and educational backgrounds of the magazine’s readership.” We are pretty sure our readers are human beings. Beyond that, we love them but have no time to speculate.