The Far Edges: Interview with Joe Wilkins

April 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

It is The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre Week here on the Brevity blog. Earlier this week we posted an interview with one of the anthology’s editors, Sean Prentiss, and an excerpted chapter of the book from John Rovner. Today, in our final installment, a follow-up interview with Sean’s co-editor Joe Wilkins, conducted by Steve Coughlin.

joe wilkinsWhat are the limitations of a craft book?

JW: A craft book is by adjectival definition a book that explores a particular craft. We’re lucky in the creative writing world in that our craft is the very medium of which most books get built, so our craft books—I’m thinking here of some of my favorites: The Writing Life, The Situation and the Story, Burning Down the House—both explain and model; we get to hear about and hear how we might craft a deeper, more powerful piece of writing. All this is to say, I don’t think there are many limitations on creative writing craft books. The books I mentioned above contain chapters and sections that read like personal narratives or lyric investigations and chapters and sections that much more explicitly outline how to (or how not to) go about the craft of writing. With The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, we’ve tried to honor that tradition by gathering essays that are coming at craft from all different directions. Some, like Kim Barnes’s “The Art and Absence of Reflection in Nonfiction: What is the Why?,” are more proscriptive. Others, like Lia Purpura’s “Advice” and “On Writing ‘Advice’,” dodge and feint, attempting to spin the reader’s usual notions of craft around.

I am fascinated by the technique in nonfiction of the composite character. At what point does the combining of characters and the framing of narrative push an essay into the genre of fiction?

JW: For me, it all depends on the story. Does the frame fit the story? Does it allow the story to truly become itself? The same kinds of questions apply, I think, for composite characters or time compression or many of the other “controversial” techniques in creative nonfiction. Ander Monson, Bob Shacochis, Nancer Ballard, H. Lee Barnes, Erik Reece, and other writers included in The Far Edges speak not exactly to but through these questions, helping us as writers fixate not on the controversy but on the fundamental reasons—from nonfiction as translation to nonfiction as a unique space of literary witness—we might choose to write true stories the way we do.

As nonfiction continues to experience more innovation, do you have any concerns or reservations of form taking precedent over content?

JW: I don’t mean to be glib, but I’ll just say, nope. Think about a sonnet or an epistolary novel: the form doesn’t take precedence over or constrict—it allows. Though as creative nonfiction writers we do have the obligation to toe the line of truth as best we can (though I’d argue that obligation, too, is a kind of form that allows rather than constricts), I think the vast and varied forms we’re seeing in contemporary memoirs and essays are fascinating and exciting—and, very often, true.

Prentiss_Wilkins.inddWhat obligations do writers have in acknowledging verifiable truth versus what is often referred to as personal truth?

JW: Okay, this is my assignment answer: go read Robin Hemley’s “Lines That Create Motion,” Sean Prentiss’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Nonfiction Mind: A New Philosophy for Understanding Truth and Creative Nonfiction,” and Judith Kitchen’s “Gone A-Sailing: A Voyage to the Edge of Nonfiction (in which I Follow My Own Exercise for Writing about a Photograph),” all of which are included in The Far Edges, and report back to me.

What excites you most about the future of nonfiction?

JW: Last semester, in my literary nonfiction class, one of my students wrote a smart, challenging, heartbreaking essay partially built around standardized test questions she’d invented. My student is of Native Hawaiian and white ancestry, and with her essay she really got a hold of so many powerful questions: Who am I? Who are my people? Where do I belong? That essay excited me, as did so many others I read in that class, as have many of the memoirs and essays I’ve read in the past year. Nonfiction is simply at an exciting moment in its history. All kinds of powerful stories are being told in all kinds of striking ways.

Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry, winner of the 2014 GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the 2013 Orion Book Award, and two collections of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. He lives with his his wife, son, and daughter in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.

Steve Coughlin‘s poems, essays, and stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, New Ohio Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Seneca Review, and He has never won a Pushcart Prize.




The Far Edges: A Story About a Girl

April 9, 2014 § 4 Comments

In an excerpt from the recently released The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, Jonathan Rovner ponders what creative nonfiction writers can do when our reality “becomes not just somewhat, but remarkably nondramatic? What happens when the conduits through which our emotions flow seem frivolous and somehow beneath mention among civilized people?”(Our “Far Edges Week” interview with co-editor Sean Prentiss ran on the blog yesterday.)


vertI watched Vertigo in college, because I was in college and it was the sort of film you were supposed to watch. I liked it well enough and promptly forgot all about it. But for whatever reason, the film has recently resurfaced from the morass in my brain where old movies go to die, and so one night I biked down to retrieve a copy from the nearest locally owned video store (that is, I streamed it on Netflix). As you may know, it’s a very weird movie. At its heart is Jimmy Stewart’s obsession with Kim Novak, which isn’t much of a mystery if you’ve ever seen Kim Novak. But I found myself marveling at the cinematic crispness of Stewart’s obsession. Here he is trailing her to an old Spanish mission, and an art museum, and San Francisco Bay. Eventually the two of them fling body against body against the moody wet backdrop of a redwood forest. Oh, sweet release.

But it was the quieter moments that drew me in: Stewart tailing her in his car, or awkwardly interrogating the owner of an apartment house. The potential dangers behind every door, the frantic dread of losing Novak in traffic or the cold indifferent waters of the Bay. And studying Stewart’s face—pallid and sweaty, creased with hope and anticipation and fear—I realized that I’d had those same feelings not so long ago, but my obsession didn’t look anything like his. It didn’t look like much of anything.

I envy his obsession, the narrative satisfaction of it. But it’s 2012. It’s hard to get there from here.

So this is a story about a girl, and of course any time a guy says that it’s a dead giveaway that it’s really about him. Okay, it’s about me. You know my name, and I’m not going to tell you hers. But I’ve come to detest bland pseudonyms. If you’ve got a story about a girl named Lara and change her name to Anne, what’s the point? You may as well go all out. This is my story about Ms. Clarissa Applesauce.

Some background: In the fall of 2008, I moved from Denver to Eastern Kentucky to take a job teaching English at a small university that will go unnamed. Due to the particulars of regional heritage (whatever that means), Nom de Guerre, KY was in no sense a College Town. It was, rather, a typically sad rural town that happened to have a university within its city limits. I took a small studio apartment just off of Mainstreet—a block of mostly empty stores kept that way by the two families who had owned it for decades and were determined to keep the 21st Century (and much of the 20th) from intruding upon the bucolic calm of their Appalachian paradise. I lived across the lot from Mainstreet’s most lucrative business: a drive-thru liquor store that opened at 7AM and did a brisk business with the early risers.

And thus did I find myself marooned in a foreign land far from home, and it seemed the perfect time to embrace my inner ascetic, that contemplative monk I’d always sensed dwelling deep in my chest who would only come into his own if forcibly divorced from the din of constant and easily accessible stimuli. I would live, if not like Thoreau, at least like my literary heroes from the Twenties. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Nate West, John Fante—whatever their faults, none of them had to endure the ignominy of finding themselves clicking mindlessly on a link entitled “Keira Knightley Goes Shopping.”

So I declared my life television and Internet free. I had my music, my books. In this grand fantasy, I saw myself hunched over in my walk-in closet of an apartment reading Proust and Tolstoy, maybe even Finnegan’s Wake. Why not? We all know one hour of unperturbed silence has as many minutes as three or four hours of random Internet puttering or stupefied television viewing. Come Eastern Kentucky or high water, I too would live deliberately.

In retrospect, I view this experiment as a scientific one: can a man survive for an entire year feeding on nothing but delusion?

Because, of course, once stimuli were gone, I missed them terribly. Whatever the ultimate benefits might be of plodding through Remembrance of Things Past, they in no way could compete with the free and depressive clarity of clicking from website to website, seeking something, anything, to temporarily distract my brain. My daily routine went like this: teach in classroom, hang out in office with the magical “Internet” that existed there, come home to throw oneself down on bed or floor. Either nap or stare at ceiling. Eat. Return to office till midnight, drown self in Internet. Reflect on life. Contemplate buying volleyball to talk to. Without a scintilla of evidence to the contrary, pretend tomorrow will be different.

Tomorrow: repeat today.

I lived like this for nine months. But then (cue upbeat hopeful emo song), I met a girl—the aforementioned Ms. Applesauce. I struck up a conversation in Nom de Guerre’s only coffee shop, which was actually a small alcove off the town’s only bookstore. She was reading Slaughterhouse-Five. In what can only be described as my smoothest pick-up line ever, I asked her if she liked it. She referred to it as a great “cuddle-buddy.” I still have no idea what this means. But conversation ensued and numbers were exchanged and we planned to meet for a drink a few days later.

I was a new man, and spent those intervening days in a whirl-a-gig of euphoria. I walked up and down the bombed-out streets of Nom de Guerre dreaming of all the adventures that awaited us—road trips to Nashville and Asheville, star-spangled nights camping out in the Smoky Mountains or romping through the cheap tourist paradise that is Gatlinburg, TN.

These flights of fancy were ridiculous, but they sure beat lying on the floor counting the speckles in the ceiling.

I suppose I could draw out our first (and, spoiler alert, only date, paint a colorful scene and detail the social anxieties and social cues and social etceteras. But let’s not. The bare bones go like this:

1. She brought three friends. They talked in a closed-circuit about people I’d never met and events I hadn’t attended.

2. Besides her friends, she knew about 78% of the other patrons. (If you were born in Eastern Kentucky, it’s apparently impossible not to know at least 2/3rd of the people in any given room.) They swallowed her up.

3. She got really drunk. I got regular drunk.

4. I sat alone at the bar—oh, glorious cliché—for god knows how long and eventually watched her staggering out of the bar with her friends.

5. I walked home.

Cue sad hopeless emo song.

End of story.

Except it wasn’t.

That night was only a prelude to the real story, which began the next day when she sent what I’ll refer to as E-mail#1. She apologized profusely, told me she was fresh from an abusive relationship. The abuser had been her fiancée. They’d set a date and everything.

I wrote back something heartfelt and dripping with empathy. I’m pretty sure I included that James Wright poem about wishing words were grass. Thus began our electronic correspondence. She told me she was no good at this; she was shy and nervous. She needed to go slow.

Sure, I said.

I returned to Colorado for the summer. We “talked” via e-mail and text message. I wore out the buttons on my phone crafting exquisitely edited texts. I drafted e-mails, printed them out, and sat outside on my brother’s porch late into the night revising until they were just right. I gently pushed for a phone call, but she had a thing about talking on the phone.  It was too…immediate. Too close. Uncontrolled.

Sure, I said.

And of course it was weird, and unorthodox. But those adjectives are right up my alley. Who wants a non-weird orthodox girlfriend?

She convinced me to join Facebook, which up till then I’d successfully avoided on the basis of some vague, hard-to-explain principle. Sort of like the Indians who feared cameras could flash away their souls. But I was in the long grass now, and I guiltily clicked on her photos and Older Posts. My mother had taught me from a very young age not to be the kind of person who rifles through people’s drawers when they’re not home. But this was a new kind of house—windows wide open, not a locked door in sight. Or like a diary left open on the coffee table, adorned with a post-it note that screamed READ ME!

So I did.

I pondered every male face for hints—which one of these yokels was her erstwhile fiancée? Which were potential suitors? I took mental notes of her likes and dislikes, which didn’t disappoint. She liked The Godfather and David Bowie in Labyrinth. She loved Bob Dylan and obscure underground bands I’d never heard of. If my friends had invented a girl to torment me, they couldn’t have done much better.

And still came the e-mails and text messages—every day, every other day. She’d text me when she was tromping through the mud on her parents’ stamp of eastern Kentucky soil; she’d text me when she had a nightmare. She sent YouTube links to songs, snippets of philosophy. I studied her e-mails and texts as though I could uncover hidden nuance and meaning—the lonely kabbalist at work. They couldn’t just be words. Too much was riding on this. “Too much,” naturally, being the omnipresent fear of another year of wretched Appalachian solitude.

We made plans to meet again when I returned to Kentucky in August.

August came. E-mail#58 (all numbers are approximate) made plans to meet for a hike. Two days later, Text#2,144 introduced a reason to delay. I would hear nothing for a week, then be greeted one fine morn by an e-mail explaining that some minor catastrophe—ex-boyfriend drama, sick grandfathers, the weather—was to blame. And we’d start over.

I grew impatient and ever more confused with her excuses, which were legion and rarely creative. My only excuse, presumably, was desperation. To be fair, I was desperate. But also intrigued. She was smart, and interesting, and damaged in some irresistible Sylvia Plath (or, if you will, Fiona Apple) way that fed my admittedly naive Savior fantasies. This was 2009, remember—a time of hope. I was the change she’d been waiting for.

Each new message was the proverbial shot of adrenaline straight into my atrophied heart. When two or three days passed without hearing from her, I grew restless and sunk. I’d send a text, and wait. Then a follow-up text. And wait. I’d send an e-mail, and wait. And wait.

She seemed to have an otherworldly ability to gauge my level of frustration. As soon as I was ready to completely and irrevocably be rid of her there would come the familiar Pavlovian vibrating beep of a new text message to just-barely renew my battered hopes.

Parry, thrust.

Step forward, step back. Make plans and break them.

This went on for over a year.

Let’s not draw this sad story out any longer. But rest assured that I didn’t quit Facebook the first time I tried. And I couldn’t quit her. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but more than that, it felt like I was being jerked to and fro by a girl and a relationship that didn’t even exist. An unhealthy relationship I could handle, because at least it would pass the time. But this was metaphysical humiliation. If a normal face-to-face relationship is a simple (or even not-so-simple) math equation, then this was some abstruse mathematical proof full of symbols you’ve never seen before. Or else pure gibberish.

I’d erase her e-mails and texts, and resolutely tell myself not to contact her or respond when she, with the painful regularity of an iTunes service agreement, butted her electronic head back into my life. My resolve would crumble as soon as my phone started to buzz or I’d see her name pop up in the e-mail tag.

I don’t know what else to call it, if not an obsession. I don’t think Jimmy Stewart had anything on me. But I couldn’t explain it to my friends, or hardly to myself. The fact that it was playing out on a virtual stage was beyond humiliating. There was no “there” here. I rebuked myself for feelings that weren’t “real”—how could they be? Real things happened in the real world, a place of trees and tables and sidewalks and sticky barroom floors. This was happening exactly nowhere.

Eventually she just stopped. Eventually I moved on. But what this odd not-love affair from an odd time in my life spurred me into thinking is this: so much of life today—its victories, defeats, confusions—now comes to us in ways that seem tremendously uninteresting. Even if I filled the long spaces between texts and e-mails with local color (and eastern KY has plenty of that), it wouldn’t change the fundamental fact that this massive and consuming event in my life was taking place on a stage bereft of what we would traditionally consider tension and drama. I was sitting in my office checking my e-mail, or sleepwalking through my days until my phone buzzed with an incoming text. Pathetic might be a word I’d use, but dramatic it was not. Nor was it evocative, or resonant, or any of the other chipper workshop words we use to describe effective prose.

The great premise and promise of creative nonfiction is that—regardless of a few minor costume changes—these things are True. They happened to us, and they matter. But they also have to be interesting. What happens when our reality becomes not just somewhat, but remarkably nondramatic? What happens when the conduits through which our emotions flow seem frivolous and somehow beneath mention among civilized people?

Beneath us they may be, but they’re still here. And they won’t be going away anytime soon.

In the first act of Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart trails Kim Novak to the art gallery in the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. We get the establishing shot: Ionic and Corinthian columns and a Roman arch. Very classical, very classy. Inside, Stewart squints at Novak, who sits prim and stiff on a bench and gazes up at a painting. A bouquet of pink flowers lay beside her. She wears a cold grey dress-suit. Stewart strolls behind her in his gangly way, in his ill-fitting brown suit, with his furtive glances. He holds his brown fedora loosely with both hands. Novak’s hair is pulled back in a coiled French twist. The background music works to heighten the sense of thick museum silence.

No words are spoken. No words need to be spoken. And though Vertigo is, obviously, a work of visual fiction, that scene plays out in countless iterations countless times a day, in public spaces all over the world. A man looking at a woman. Deep feeling— lust, heartache, trepidation, hesitation, irritation—conveyed through fleeting glimpses and body language. No direct dialogue is necessary.

Clarissa Applesauce and I had words; it was all we had. Words sent to one another through the ether, through broadband and wifi. Words that presented themselves out of a void. Words without accompaniment, without context or environment to inform or enrich them. Words, words, words. The transcripts would total hundreds of pages, but they wouldn’t add up to anything approaching a compelling or enticing narrative.

Give me a rider on horseback passing love letters from one end of town to the other. Certainly I’ll paint you the local color: trees in full bloom or autumn rags, the wind through the rider’s hair or rain slanting violently down. The breathless gallop of the horse. But I’ll also give you the clanging of the bell announcing his arrival, the sky behind him as he stands framed in the doorway, his outfit, awkward greetings and pleasantries, the passing of the letter, the tactile feel of unfolding the envelope, a sense of the handwriting.

We’re worlds away from that, of course. But even a phone call has its awkward pauses, stumbles, tonal shifts, accusations, affirmations, endearments, silences, frantic pleas, or the jerky breathlessness of pacing around a room. I can do that. And I can do the meeting of eyes across a crowded party, all gestures and posturing; or a walk through the park; or even the quick freighted brush of knee against knee beneath the table in a pizza parlor or coffee shop.

But in the end, I haven’t the slightest idea how to write in full dramatic flourish of the highs and lows of my virtual Appalachian romance. And though I’ve since engaged in more traditional, “normal” (not to mention healthy) relationships, even these couldn’t be honestly rendered without the ways in which emotion in this second decade of the new millennium is bound up irrevocably with communication systems that didn’t exist a generation ago. A fun first-date is validated with a text good night, or a friendly e-mail the next day. Burgeoning relationships are punctuated with flirty and affectionate electronic missives, many of them containing grammar mistakes, truncated words, fatuous emoticons. Fights play out through the same satellites and wires. Who wants to read about that? And who wants to write about it?

As far as I can tell, the answer is no one. The answer for most writers is to hit the IGNORE key. Which may be a feasible option, I suppose, for writers of fiction. Just pretend it doesn’t exist in our lives. Create a fantasyland where the characters act like it’s still 1992. Pretend, as they do on television, that drivers and passersby and coffee shop patrons aren’t all acting as though they have advanced OCD, or like addicts who can’t go five full minutes without chasing the virtual dragon. This is the new normal. This is how we live.

Of course, not every event in our lives needs documenting. I’ve never felt cheated when a memoir doesn’t take bathroom breaks. But this omission feels different. We are engaged in a deliberate bout of wishful thinking, an almost childish game of “Let’s pretend.” Most people I know under forty (and that’s most people I know) dive into the Internet first thing in the morning. Even my friends who pride themselves on their hyperactive lifestyles—bouldering, skiing, rafting dangerous rapids—will plug back in as soon as they’ve finished their play-date with nature, and still spend significant hours of their days in front of a laptop or hunched over the computer that lives in their phone.

Significant is the operative word. Shouldn’t these modes of communication be recognized for the multifarious and important functions they serve in our lives? Can they be, in any way, interesting? And if our creative nonfiction can’t find a way to integrate this great and/or sad truth about how we spend our days, what does that say about our craft? Maybe we’re just fiction writers in disguise, sweeping under the rug what we find distasteful or shallow or boring about modern life in order to tell those truths that we find more elevated, more heightened, less embarrassing. Just reach for the preordained grace notes. Follow the old script. Aim for the same rote moment of clarity or flash of insight. One more tired epiphany on top of a mountain.

And to be honest, if I encountered a character in an essay or memoir who spent a significant portion of his days checking e-mail and reading texts—who acted as many of us act—I would almost certainly laugh. How preposterous he seems, grasping after his silly gadgets. A caricature, really. A flat one-note joke.

I don’t have a solution to this problem.

I read somewhere that one of many reasons The Simpsons is considered such a landmark achievement is because it was the first show to portray a family doing what families had been doing for decades: lounging around and watching TV. But that’s satire. It’s comedy. And while I might be able to successfully render my “unreal” relationship with Clarissa as pure farce, it wouldn’t be True. Maybe it was a farce of sorts, this connection built on clipped text messages and sitting alone in rooms at my computer waiting, waiting—god, the waiting!—for the next thrust of virtual contact, but there was also passion and anxiety and hope and desperation and secret sharing between two damaged souls.

And none of it was funny.

*                                  *                                  *

As a postscript, I should probably mention that I received an e-mail from Clarissa about a year ago. She was attending vet school on an island in the West Indies. She just wanted me to know, she wrote. She described how it felt to drift off to sleep at night listening to the ocean, to wake up listening to the ocean, to walk barefoot on the white sands near the ocean. All that crap.

I composed my response as concisely as possible: Glad to hear it. Be well. But I couldn’t bring myself to stop there. What was the point? I asked her. Was there a point? Did any of it mean anything?

It wasn’t a rhetorical question. I really needed to know.

She got back to me in less than an hour. I wrote all about it in my diary, she said. I don’t want to re-write it all. Send me your address and I’ll send the pages.

I doubt I can successfully convey just how gratifying was the promise of a tangible letter. I might never see her again, but answers were coming. The pages, either heavily-bonded and fancy or thin and cheap, would be torn, neatly or in haste, from a diary bought at some high-end craft store or maybe Wal-Mart. The pages would be covered in tidy printed script or cramped cursive, written with ink from a pen she had received as a gift or maybe cribbed from a motel. A pen she had actually held in her small and almost chubby hands, which I remember being oddly and cutely out of proportion to her thin frame. The pages would come in an envelope she’d sealed with her own spit, the lipped fold of the envelope pressed shut with the tip of her finger. The letter would travel physically from an island halfway across the world. It would pass through the hands of uncaring strangers. One day, jetlagged and road-weary, this letter would arrive in my curbside mailbox. I would separate it out from bills and coupons. I would hold it in my hands.

Anyway. I’m still waiting.

Jonathan Rovner learned to write at Walnut Hills Elementary, just south of Denver, Colorado.  His work has recently appeared in the Indiana Review, Wag’s Revue, and the 2013 Best of the Net Anthology.

The Far Edges: Interview with Sean Prentiss

April 8, 2014 § 5 Comments

Sean Prentiss

Sean Prentiss

An interview with Sean Prentiss, one of the editors of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, a new anthology of craft essays published by Michigan State University Press. Steve Coughlin interviews Prentiss on his motivation for putting The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre together and his thoughts on what to expect as this genre continues to expand and be redefined:

Where did you come up with this idea and how does it differ from other creative nonfiction anthologies?

SP: When I was in graduate school at the University of Idaho in 2006, I loved the discussions about creative nonfiction that we’d have in Mary Clearman Blew’s Techniques of Creative Nonfiction. But it often seemed as if it was just our class talking to ourselves, we were dancing in tight circles. There was no larger conversation going on that we could be a part of. There were no articles written about the pedagogy of creative nonfiction that we were aware of. So we had nothing to push us further into a discussion on what creative nonfiction is or where it could go or how it could challenge itself.

That void made me want to find the splintered conversations going on in classrooms and bars and conferences and bring them together in a collection that creative nonfiction writers could gather around and join in with.

And what we were going for here is to find the newest conversations, the ones farthest away from the center. So our writers do not wrestle often with the more traditional ideas. Instead, they linger of the edges.

What are some of the important conversations The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre explores and why are these conversations important in a larger context?

Prentiss_Wilkins.inddSP: Our authors explore a wide range of conversations, which is one of the fun things about this anthology. It meanders across and deeper into so much of creative nonfiction. Mary Clearman Blew leads us into her entry into creative nonfiction, which allows us to see how our view of creative nonfiction has evolved in the few decades since creative nonfiction has been taught on campuses. Brenda Miller, Ander Monson, and Jon Rovner all look at how technology affects creative nonfiction. Nancer Ballard and Bob Shacochis examine the use of time in creative nonfiction. Erik Reece writes about the need to bear witness in our writings. Lee Barnes, Joe Wilkins, and I delve into different corners of memory. And Kim Barnes and Brevity‘s Dinty W. Moore examine why we write and how to boil that reason to the surface of our writings.

These conversations are important because they allow writers more space to play, more styles to write within, more borders to explore, more questions to ask, more answers to contemplate.

How could this anthology supplement the classroom experience for creative writing students?

SP: When I taught senior level creative nonfiction classes, I often had to piece together readings for my students. I kept looking for a single text that advanced students (seniors or grad students) could read that would create a semester’s worth of dialog on creative nonfiction and re-shape how they write creative nonfiction. So this book is designed to fill that niche.

Judith Kitchen offers an essay that is also a writing prompt on speculation. Robin Hemley teaches us about interpreting life. Joy Castro shares her beautifully written essay, “Grip,” and then she explains how and why she wrote “Grip.” So the reader gets an insider’s view of writing, gets to live in the mind of the writer.

How has creative nonfiction evolved over the last few years and what directions do you anticipate it going in the future?

SP: It has moved away from memoir told chronologically, which is what we studied a lot in grad school. Back then, creative nonfiction felt as if it was static, as if there was little room to explore. You started at the beginning of your story and created scenes that carried you to the end.

But that has been blown apart. We have so many experimental slivers of creative nonfiction popping up. The lyrical style that Lia Purpura writes about in her essay “Advice and on Writing ‘Advice.’” The use of translation of a life that Hemley writes about really explodes biography. The heavy use of speculation to arrive at truth that Kitchen delves into. The research heavy essay that Nancer explores. The mythologies of memory that Lee Barnes writes about.

What excites you most about creative nonfiction? What are some potential concerns you have for the genre?

SP: I am excited for the growth within creative nonfiction. There is so much room for so many styles of writers. And that didn’t always seem to be the case.

I’m excited about the new discussions going on in the other anthologies and in magazines and lit journals, all the new pedagogical ideas being discussed. It’s as if we are watching creative nonfiction transform from a teenager to an adult. Individually, I’m excited for our discussions on memory and truth.

I have no concerns about creative nonfiction. I have had plenty of arguments with friends about creative nonfiction—what it is, what it can do, and where it should go. At the end of those debates, I might not agree with my friends’ ideas. But I love the space these disagreements allow. These spaces allow for new styles of creative nonfiction and new ideas on what creative nonfiction is and where it can grow.

Steve Coughlin‘s poems, essays, and stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, New Ohio Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Seneca Review, and He has never won a Pushcart Prize.

Brevity’s Summer Shutdown Just Weeks Away

April 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

Our Summer Plans

Our Summer Plans

Brevity will cease accepting new submissions for the summer on May 1, 2014, and will not resume taking submissions until September 2014.  (If you have already submitted, we will continue to read and respond until the queue is empty.)  Before and after the summer shutdown, you can visit our submissions page through the link below:

Submit to Brevity

Going Nowhere

April 2, 2014 § 2 Comments

mr1_007Award-winning literary travel magazine, Nowhere, is teaming up with Outside Magazine Executive Editor Sam Moulton for the first Nowhere Spring Travel Writing Contest. We are looking for young, old, novice and veteran voices with a powerful sense of place in their writing. Stories can be fiction or nonfiction, but please indicate which at the top of each manuscript. Entries should be be between 800-5,000 words and must not have been previously chosen as a winner in another contest. Previously published work is accepted, but again, please indicate this. Every submission will be read blind, so anyone can win…

The winner will be awarded $1,000 and published in an upcoming issue of Nowhere. The top 10 stories will be announced on the website and published on

Sonora Wants Essays, Nonfiction, and Hybrids

April 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Jenny Boully

Jenny Boully

Deadline: May 15th, 2014

Judge: Jenny Boully
What We Want: Essays, nonfiction, and hybrids of up to 6,000 words
Prize: Winner receives $1,000 and publication in Issue 66 of Sonora Review; all other finalists will be considered for publication

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.







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