August 18, 2014 § 2 Comments
On sites like Medium, Longform, Narratively and The Magazine, longer essays and journalism that goes deeper than a listicle are alive and kicking. Medium functions as a blogging site + famous writers, categorizing articles to make it easy to connect from one writer’s perspective to another. Narratively and The Magazine feel similar to printed issues, scheduling groups of new stories and notifying free and paid subscribers via email. Longform links to new and archived material, with most of their pieces coming from the websites of print journalism sources like Vanity Fair.
But are essays and essayists served by the new emphasis on longer forms in ephemeral and yet minutely trackable media?
In The Essay and the Internet, Orit Gat argues
…what we need is a shift in attitude toward reading online. Look at the language we use: the verbs we associate with reading online, like ‘bookmark’ and ‘scroll’, come from the physical word of books. ‘Longform’ and ‘longread’ are actually some of the first web-specific terms associated with reading that we have come up with. And with that comes the interesting assumption that rigor is built into length.
Ms. Gat questions whether we are reading less and publishing more, and asks, just because we can publish on the internet, should we?
August 14, 2014 § 1 Comment
Sarah Einstein interviews Wendy C. Ortiz, author of Excavation: A Memoir, out this month from Future Tense Books:
The book explores the coerced relationship Ortiz had, beginning at the age of 13, with one of her teachers and it’s impact on her growth. The LA Times says, “It’s a work of unfettered emotions and explicit descriptions that explores her troubled youth and teenage struggles to understand her budding sexuality.” As a reader, I found it to be a work of surprising grace, given its subject matter. Ortiz manages to walk many fine lines: the work never robs her younger self of her agency but never crosses over into implicating her in her own abuse; it never paints the teacher, Jeff, as a romantic figure but it also never robs him of his own humanity. It is a mature, important reflection on the harsh realities of coming of age amidst sexual predation, parental neglect, and the everyday horrors of high school.
Sarah: In the book, your therapist says to you, “It seems as though your natural state is one of hiding, secrets, shame; it is where you possibly feel most comfortable.” I’m wondering how this, born of the necessity to keep your parents’ alcoholism a secret, impacted your decisions about how to edit this time in your life into a coherent narrative.
Wendy Ortiz: I’ve always known I would write this time in my life into a narrative. It was inevitable. It showed up in the fiction I wrote from the ages of 14-20, until I felt like I could come out about it without calling it fiction anymore. My relationship with secrets is complicated and one of the ways I counter the complexity is to be as honest as possible in my writing about some of the most difficult, often wounded, places in my experience, all of which I can do only with a good amount of time, space and processing in relation to the events. I appreciate you noting how I “edit this time” in my life, because there was certainly plenty of editing to make the narrative coherent, cohesive—there are more “secrets” that didn’t make it into the book in the end, and I’m trying to decide if/how I will approach that material again.
As with many things, I try to straddle the opposite extremes as an exercise in learning to live with ambivalence and ambiguity, so knowing I can be comfortable with hiding and secrets means that I’ll challenge myself to be the opposite—with intention and consciousness in the best case scenarios.
Sarah: In the chapter Notes on an Excavation: 1993-2001 you say, “I am forever indebted to the radicals, queers, faeries, activists, tough girls, strong girls, butch girls, strippers, writers, painters, photographers and dreamers I came into contact with. It was when I was running with this crowd that I learned the most about my worth.” I’ve often wanted to include a section on my syllabus, reminding undergraduates that nothing they’ll find in my classroom will be nearly as valuable as what they will find in the dorms, coffeehouses, bars, and apartments full of cast-off furniture and empty beer bottles around campus. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that time impacted you and why, exactly, it mattered that the people you found were radicals, queers, activists, and artists ?
Wendy Ortiz: I often describe the ages of 20-28, when I lived in Olympia, Washington, as a gestation period. I landed there to finish my last two years of college at The Evergreen State College and ended up staying in that town that was the population of my entire community college in Los Angeles. My roommates, all of them, were queer, and this was the first time in my life I encountered people engaging with this identity in clear, open, and exciting ways. My next-door neighbors were anarchists and the groups I got involved in were politically progressive and often radical. If I had stayed in Los Angeles, I’m certain I would have had a similar trajectory, but it might have taken longer, or I might have become distracted by making enough of a living to survive the city. I discovered, by observing (which I’m really good at) these radicals, queers, activists and artists, that life did not need to be how my family of origin had taught me. I could be, do, perform, write without shame or fear—or if shame and fear were present, I could use them to transform the work or myself into something else entirely.
Sarah: One of my favorite things about this book is the way in which you portray your younger self on the page as naïve without robbing her of her agency and without implicating her in her own abuse. This is such a delicate balancing act, and you manage it so artfully. I can’t help but imagine that this was, at least in part, made possible because you kept such detailed journals of that time and could go back and actually work in conversation with your younger self. Will you share with us a little bit about the process of working from those old journals, and about what it felt like to live with your younger self in such an intimate way during the writing?
Wendy Ortiz:The detailed journals definitely play a role in maintaining that balance (and thank you for noting it this way, also artfully). The process of working with them has been to use them as a reference point. The first drafts were written by memory, then I read through the journals to look for events, conversations, thoughts that would flesh out the narrative. Living with my younger self in such an intimate way feels natural to me. It could be my experience in Jungian analysis and previous therapy where I learned to differentiate different thoughts and feelings into parts of myself—and there are many parts. The fourteen- and fifteen-year-old me frequently pop in to give their opinions about things in my forty-one year old life, and I appreciate and welcome their voices. In this way, I maintain a closeness to different parts of myself that I can access later when I want to write about them.
Sarah: I want to send copies of Excavation: A Memoir to everyone I know with a daughter who is or will be thirteen. I’m wondering if there is something you would say to parents who read your book and wonder how to protect their daughters from this kind of predation?
Wendy Ortiz:My hope is that parents (including myself, as a parent of a daughter) will have the fortitude, patience, and openness to acknowledge and talk about sexuality with their daughters. I still feel new to parenting and recently learned of the alternatives to teaching about “stranger danger” and how anyone can become “not a stranger” with a simple hello—which means teaching about strangers suddenly isn’t enough. In my own house I intend to teach my daughter that adults should never ask her to keep secrets; that adults have a responsibility to help keep kids safe and that anything an adult suggests that makes her feel unsafe or uncomfortable should be suspect, not her fault, and something she can share with her parents. Some of my other parenting intentions include modeling an openness in talking with my daughter about subjects that might be deemed “uncomfortable,” without arousing unnecessary fears or taboos that might keep her from speaking openly herself. Everything I do in parenting my own kid is in service to helping her realize and embody a sense of herself as strong, unique, worthy, and “enough,” no matter what she does or doesn’t do.
August 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
Some of this story is historical account and so treasured by most audiences; the leftovers are legend, elusive in ways that also nourish us.
August, 1876. Wild Bill Hickok sits in Nuttall & Mann’s No. 10 Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory playing five-card draw with several men, among them Jack McCall. Both Hickok and McCall wear pistols in their belts. Hickok goes on a substantial run, chiefly at McCall’s expense. For hours they drink whiskey and jaw at each other. Hickok goes up big, and McCall goes bust.
Then the fateful gesture: Hickok passes a dollar across the table and tells a broke McCall to go get himself something to eat. Befuddled, McCall takes the money and disappears.
The next morning Hickok returns to the poker table early. McCall approaches him from behind, screams “Damn you! Take that!” and shoots Hickok in the back of the head. Hickok tips over, dead. He is 39 years old. His cards sit in front of him: aces and eights, now known to any rounder as Dead Man’s Hand. His fifth card, the draw card, is face down and will forever remain that way.
It’s the ambiguity, not the precision, of the episode which lends it such potency. That small kernel—the gift of a dollar—that’s the nerve center of the story, and as we try to unravel it, it ruptures, spilling out wave after wave of intrigue. Was Hickok’s dollar given as provocation? Or did Wild Bill have a soft spot, pity for yet another vanquished foe? Did McCall buy himself dinner with the gift, or did he instead, in a dreadful stain of irony, use the money to drink himself full of courage? And what about that draw card? Had Hickok completed the full house, the adrenaline pumping into his brain just before the bullet?
It leaves us in a sort of purgatory in which we must know and cannot know. We pore over the details, rooting around the story’s underbelly for some edifying particular. Before we even realize it, the story has drawn us into its orbit, enticing us with the prospect of discovery, and as we speculate, we also elevate. This, I think, is how we grow legends. They lurk where there is a gap in the historical record, and their energy emanates from opacity rather than clarity.
Despite their dalliances into fabrication, legends crave truth. They simply don’t find it. And it’s this craving which drives them and entices us. (After all, once we answer a question we stop engaging with it: knowing is static, but wondering is active.) Legends goad us into fixating on what we cannot know by convincing us that we can know it. This, I think, is why Hickok and Nessie and Atlantis and King Arthur and Helen of Troy have persisted the way they have. So long as their mysteries remain hidden but seemingly within reach, we will remain tethered to them.
This seems a good lesson for any essayist: pivotal gestures need not be clarifying; in fact, the best gestures might be a bit perplexing. Perhaps it is counterintuitive to build outward from uncertainty rather than precision, but a thousand fascinating legends would attest to its virtues. Done well, and it creates the veneer of partnership between writer and reader: We will solve this together, you and I, it says. Ambiguity is precarious, certainly. It can easily become a crutch we use to avoid articulating complexity or nuance. Harder still, we must give up a measure of control to the reader, allow her to navigate by bread crumbs rather than a freshly cut trail. But this, I think, is the sign of a healthy essay and a confident essayist. It is well beyond admitting ignorance; it is embracing that ignorance, making it the focal point, staring at it with the reader in hopes that together you might learn something.
In other words, the draw card holds more raw power than even an ace in the hole. The draw card will always be tantalizing because it is both directly in front of us and face down. Change either of those variables, and its clout fizzles. Authority borne from murkiness. I sometimes worry that we welcome ambiguity in fiction but feel entitled to nothing but clarity in nonfiction. I know I’ve often avoided writing the essay that puzzles me too much because I feared that gaps in knowledge would stymie rather than embolden the narrative. I worry that we have trained ourselves to overlook the beauty in elusiveness. But the curiosity borne from it can be exquisite: I don’t know why Hickok gave McCall that dollar, and I don’t know what his draw card was, but I feel so grateful that I get to wonder.
Ultimately, what do we know? McCall was hanged as a murderer. Hickok became an icon of the Wild West. In 1979 he even joined the inaugural class in the World Poker Hall of Fame. Would any of that have happened if he had instead died of tuberculosis? If he hadn’t offered Jack McCall that dollar? Do we really want to know?
Brad Felver’s fiction and essays have appeared recently in Colorado Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, BULL: Men’s Fiction, and Fiction Writers Review among other places. He lives with his wife in northern Ohio, where he teaches at Bowling Green State University and is hard at work on a novel.
August 11, 2014 § 1 Comment
Kenyon Review‘s nonfiction editor Geeta Kothari offers an in-depth analysis of why a recent KR essay was chosen, including a fascinating look at how the author, Mara Naselli, switches from second-person to first-person early in the essay and how she incorporates research in a personal story. Here is Kothari’s opening, followed by a link to the full discussion:
Essays that reveal their true nature as they progress have to strike a balance between misdirection and staying the course. The art lies in the writer’s ability to establish the reader’s trust as she feels her way towards the heart of her story. She must find a balance between anticipation and suspense, between questions and answers. Re-reading “On Being a Mother,” I’m struck again by Mara Naselli’s ability to create this balance and more.
Reading Kothari’s full discussion here.
August 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
Comedy writer Ken Levine has written scripts for Cheers, M*A*S*H, Frasier, The Simpsons and many other shows as well as a fair number of movies. He’s also written a memoir: The Me Generation…By Me about growing up in Southern California in the 1960’s, and a book of travel essays, Where The Hell Am I? Trips I Have Survived.
In Mr. Levine’s blog, he dissects jokes, comedic characters, and sitcom scenes. Pretty much a master class in writing funny. His breakdowns of scenes to show why a certain punchline resolves the action, or how a character shows change, are terrific technical advice for anyone writing an episodic memoir, funny or not. Even when a writer approaches facts, figuring out goals and motivations and how they are thwarted or fulfilled in a classic set-up-pay-off structure can make a much more satisfying essay. Actively using a dramatic structure can help the writer organize material and figure out what elements of a true story are most important.
On farce, Mr. Levine writes:
First off there must be jeopardy. Something the characters need very badly and are willing to go to the greatest lengths to achieve.
…Secondly, a farce is built on a lie. A character lies and then to keep from getting caught must lie again.
Sounds like a gripping memoir.
August 6, 2014 § 13 Comments
By Allison K Williams
In my head, real writers wake up, head to the typewriter, and happily pound away until their word count for the day is complete. Then, emotionally depleted but happy, they retire to the lounging sofa for the afternoon.
There’s something wrong with this picture. For starters, there’s a typewriter in it.
It’s also (based on every writer I know) completely inaccurate in every other way, too. A big lie that I’ve told myself.
Everyone sweats. Everyone slogs. Everyone feels alone and sad, and like they must not be a “real writer” because “real writers” have a different/superior/classic process.
I finished a memoir and got an agent and spent a month at loose ends. There was a lot of lounging sofa, but not a lot of word count.
I felt like a loser. Like I’d probably never write anything again. That was it, my last good idea, spent. And of course from there I shame-spiraled into the book will never sell the agent just felt sorry for me and now she and her interns spend Casual Fridays hoisting Oreo-tinis and reading out choice bits of my manuscript in funny voices. (Michelle, please don’t tell me if that’s true. Let an intern tell me.)
So I screwed up my courage and asked a writer I respect a lot, “What do you do after you’ve written a book?”
“Mooch around the internet, work in my garden, look out the window, and think about how I’ll never write anything else ever again.”
It’s not just me.
It’s not just you, either.
There is no magic process that “real writers” do. You are a “real writer” when you write. You are still a “real writer” when you’re not writing, when you’re sitting and listening for words to come. Maybe your listening is taking long walks, or watching cat videos, or reading wonderful books you admire or reading trashy books that entertain you. For me, listening is hanging out on the lounging sofa and imagining a little room. I wait in the room, and my ideas are people coming to me with problems. I listen until someone shows up with a problem I want to solve.
I listen for the truth to show up, so I can tell it.
(P.S. I own the Oliver Typewriter above, and I sometimes turn it to the wall when I imagine it’s silently judging.)
Allison K Williams is Social Media Editor of Brevity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. She is also a freelance editor. She tweets @GuerillaMemoir.
August 5, 2014 § 25 Comments
Of course I do.
After I work out for fifteen minutes, drink two bottles of water, wash the dishes, drop the curtains at the tailors, do a few hours for my freelance job, research places to submit, listen to a podcast, eat lunch and make love to my boyfriend, not in that order.
I’m not sure where the book time is going to fit. And my sense of “responsibility” wants me to be responsible to everything else I can possibly commit to, before allowing me to commit to my own creative life.
Anne Lamott’s essay for Sunset proposes a terrifyingly simple solution. What can writers give up? What matters less than writing? Where can we carve out an hour for a page?
This is what I say: First of all, no one needs to watch the news every night, unless one is married to the anchor. Otherwise, you are mostly going to learn more than you need to know about where the local fires are, and how rainy it has been: so rainy! That is half an hour, a few days a week, I tell my students. You could commit to writing one page a night, which, over a year, is most of a book.
Maybe the curtains can stay hemmed with binder clips. If I leave the washing up, my boyfriend will (gladly) do it. Especially if I skip the podcast and keep the making love.