November 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
SWEET: A Literary Confection is entering its sixth year and the folks at Brevity are plenty pleased to wish a happy, productive birthday to one of our favorite online counterparts. Under the direction of co-founders Ira Sukrungruang, Katherine Riegel, and K.C. Wolfe, SWEET has from the start offered consistent high quality literary energy food. In this guest post, SWEET staffer Christine M. Lasek interviews the magazine’s co-founder Ira Sukrungruang:
SWEET is truly a “labor of love” (i.e., a lot of hard work that you’re not paid for). How were you inspired to start this magazine, and how has your concept of the publication changed since its 2007 inception?
When did Sweet start? Sweet started in a car in upstate New York, on a county road, in the middle of a blizzard, the snow like a blanket over the windshield. Katie Riegel and I were driving home and I said, “Let’s edit a magazine. Let’s get crazy.” And it was crazy, wasn’t it? To start another literary journal in a world filled with literary journals? But as Ted Kooser said, what’s the harm of another poet in the world? What’s the harm of having more poems and essays in our lives? What’s the harm in littering the world with literature?
Six years later, here we are. And the biggest surprise for Katie and KC Wolfe–the founding editors—and I is how we still retain this excitement of editing a magazine. We love it. We all teach, we all have busy lives, and so editing Sweet is our break from our lives. It’s six years, and we keep growing, keep falling in love with everything we publish. Sweet is our way of giving back to the literary community, the reading and writing life.
Even though SWEET doesn’t publish “themed” issues, it is often the case that the work in each issue has similar thematic threads. Can you talk about this generally, and speak specifically about issue 6.1, which has the theme of “impressions”?
There are a lot of ways of defining impressions. The impressions we leave on others. The impressions that we leave on the world. An impression is a way of defining who we are, and how we are viewed. The work in Sweet 6.1, especially the essays, speak to this need of understanding the impressions we make in this life.
From 36A: “…I couldn’t be a cheerleader. I had no bust. I was a Jew.”
From Dream Child: “I was alone in this dark apartment. My daughter, my Little Lamb, was nothing; less than nothing, and dreams.”
From Freight: “Over time more stories will entwine themselves in these vines and flowers…I still need to be the keeper of memory, need to throw light on the freight of yesterday.”
From The Beginning and the End: “She sucks a breath into liquid lungs, and her body falls into itself again.”
From Buddhism 101: “But I believed if I could just let go of my insistence on the solidness of myself, if I could just see things as fluid and interconnected, if I could tap into the eternal clarity of this, in the gleaming northern star above the Bodhi tree, in the stillness of my inhalations and exhalations, I could know bliss. I could never know pain. “
If anything, impression made.
Do you have a favorite among the 16 issues you have published?
I keep saying this–and this by no means is me avoiding the question–but I keep saying that the newest issue is the best issue we’ve published. I’m swept away by the poems and essays; all of them we’ve had the honor to publish over the years have engrained themselves into my body, my being, a metaphorical tattoo. That, to me, is the point of good literature. That it awakens us. That it breaks us in all the right places. That it elevates our understanding of our place in the world. I live with Geoff Schmidt’s essay “Otis and Jake” in my bones. Ruth Awad’s piece, “In the Skin,” is in my skin. I’m winged away by the swifts in Amy Monticello’s “Chimney Swifts.” I am made aware of my body, as Wendy Rawlings is in her essay “36A.”
Tell me about SWEET’s publishing arm, SWEET Publications, including any projects that are on the horizon.
Why stop at a magazine? I’m a dreamer. My other editors have to sometimes reel me back in. But this was something we all wanted to do. We wanted to publish books. Books by authors who did not have books. Books by contributors of the magazine. Books that were beautiful to touch, to hold. We wanted readers to not only take pleasure in the word, but in the product. The book was going to be art in and of itself. Sweet is blessed with staff members who are also artists like RC Stephens, Gloria Muñoz, and the head of Sweet Publications, Jim Miller. We wanted to create limited edition handmade books, and have those books available in e-format or PDFs. The designers of the books read and work closely with the authors. We have three books so far. Amy Monticello’s Close Quarters, Megan Gannon’s The Witch’s Index, and Donna Steiner’s Elements. We are working on a compilation of poetry published in Sweet in the last five years. Have I mentioned we love what we do?
What advice do you have for aspiring poets and essayists that hope to be counted among SWEET’s authors? What about for writers who hope to start their own literary magazine some day?
To writers: Send. Send again. Send better. Believe.
To future editors: Do it because you love it. Do it because you want to bring the world a gift of words.
Ira Sukrungruang is an Associate Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of South Florida. He is a Chicago born Thai-American whose cultural identity often features prominently in his work. His memoir, Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, was published in 2010, and his book of poetry, In Thailand it is Night, was winner of the first Anita Claire Scharf Award.
Christine M. Lasek teaches creative and technical writing at the University of South Florida. She also serves as the Public Relations Officer for SWEET: A Literary Confection. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Pearl Literary Magazine, Tampa Review Online, the Coal City Review, and elsewhere.
November 8, 2013 § 8 Comments
In late September, Jay Roberts’ insightful, haunting essay “Center of the Universe” was published in Orange Coast Magazine. This essay explores seduction, sexuality, and self-awareness through the unlikely frame of a chance encounter with a serial killer. Like many readers, I first discovered it at the end of October, when it was republished by Thought Catalog and began showing up on Facebook. I was so struck by the voice that I went looking for other work by the author, and discovered that “Center of the Universe” is his first published piece, so I used my magic Brevity talk-to-writers-I-admire card to ask him to discuss the process of creating this work and how he feels about it’s reception. He graciously said yes. – Sarah Einstein, Managing Editor
SE: For me, one of the most compelling elements of your essay “Center of the Universe” is the way in which you use this event to examine yourself and your reactions to Randy Kraft. As Andrea Denhoed of the New Yorker says, “This story could have been told very differently. It easily could have been angled for a ‘Whoa, that’s insane’ effect. What’s truly remarkable about Roberts’ s account is how honest he is about his own reactions to Kraft–how pliantly he responded to his requests, how hungry he was for his attentions.” Can you talk a little bit about your choices as a writer in this piece, and about what you wanted the reader to understand after she had finished it?
JR: My immediate reaction was just as Ms. Deanhoed suggests this story could have been. I was clicking around the web, recognized Kraft, and nearly fell out of my chair. And the next day or two, I related it that way to a couple of friends, my role in it exculpated by the denial and revisionism that I still allowed myself to believe.
Even with that context, I was just floored to have had something like that touch my life. It was just beyond belief and I was pretty distressed. Nonetheless, I attributed it to the “whoa, dude” aspect of it.
A very close friend of mine from my Navy days responded to an email with comments along the lines of, “What a scumbag. I bet you were happy leaving that room.” I quickly and without much reflection wrote back, that no, you don’t understand, I really liked this guy.
Rereading that reflexive reaction amid all the distress I was feeling made me think I really had to get to the bottom of this. It was bothering me a lot more than simply a near death experience should seemingly do. I’ve had a few close calls, but there was something different here.
So I set out to uncover what was different and began writing, peeling away layers of the onion. This began with a bare facts recounting, retracing the afternoon, then filling in what I was thinking and feeling at various points through a number of revisions. In retrospect, I can see it was like a moth tentatively approaching the flame.
During this process I was confiding with an old girlfriend with whom I was discussing my thoughts and what I was writing. At one point, she remarked, “Oh, you were in love with the guy.” My reaction was that you are beyond nuts, that is the craziest girly sh*t ever. Tough former Marine, right?
But she had a point, it was starting to sound an awful lot like a love story. And the more it developed in that direction, not the events, but what I thought about them, the more I knew I was getting things sorted out.
And I was immediately aware when this process was done, that I had gotten to the truth about myself. I had been at the keyboard almost non-stop for a few weeks and I just walked away from it.
So for choices, I didn’t make any other than my goal of understanding why this new information about an old event was so disruptive to me. As for the reader, I wasn’t writing for public consumption. I had no intentions whatsoever of publishing this when originally writing this
That being said, beyond the story itself, I learned something that I hope a reader does as well. That one’s past is as much of an unwritten story be as is one’s future.
SE: Orange Coast also published the Fact-Checker’s findings on your essay. I particularly love his line, “Roberts conceded that he’d identified the building using 33-year old memories and Google Earth, and could have been wrong about the motel’s exact site.” I think for many people who write personal essay, this need to recreate a demonstrably true set of events from scraps of old memory is one of the biggest challenges we face. Can you tell us a little bit about how you went about recreating such a detailed account of that evening, what challenges you faced, and how you overcame them?
JR: First, though I never raised the issue with Orange Coast, I have a little bone to amicably pick about “conceded”. My original draft was very detailed about using Google street view for reconstruction. “Conceded” could be interpreted a little like “admitted” or “confessed”, that I had hid this fact.
When I first started reading about Kraft, frenetically really, I was actually looking for something that would rule him out. Something like this couldn’t possibly have happened, it was so far off the charts. I scoured the Web, even reading scattered, obscure comments on obscure forums, that sort of thing.
But everything matched, would be an extension of what I remembered, or didn’t conflict.
For instance, my impressionistic memory of the first beer he handed me. I compared my memory with pictures of Heineken bottles, just a guess, but it didn’t match. At some point along the way, I read that, when arrested, his car was littered with Moosehead bottles. Several other accounts/memories mentioned that he was quite fond of this.
So I looked up Moosehead, specifically from that era and bingo, that was it. That was a chilling moment and I had more than a few like this.
Very early on, I became aware of the pitfalls of this exercise, that what I was learning could, even unintentionally, get subtly incorporated in to what I truly remembered. I decided that I would pay unfailingly attention to this, down to little things like the beer label. Sometimes when you pay attention to the little things, the big things take care of themselves.
You may not consciously notice, but when in sections recounting events, I never refer to Kraft by name. That is because I didn’t remember his name. I’m horrible with names even after a brief period, much less 33 years. So it is all “this guy” and “that guy”. In retrospect, it seems a nice literary device, but when I wrote it, it was for an entirely different purpose.
Both never having spoke of this for 33 years nor returning to San Clemente since I left the Corps in 1980 probably worked to my advantage in this exercise. It was all frozen in amber, not clouded by later discussions or events. And likewise, that afternoon and the aftermath, wondering about sexuality, made a vivid impression; it was unique, disturbing, and out of character for me at the time.
SE: In response to praise on the Orange Coast site, you mention that you worked closely with editor Marty Smith on this piece. Can you talk a little bit about the process of that work and about how working with Mr. Smith helped to shape and inform the piece?
JR: I connected with Marty Smith via Dennis McDougal, who wrote a book that has become a major reference piece about Kraft. At that point, I was hoping to track down that photo and figured that Dennis, despite his book being 20 years old, would have connections and/or advice about how to do this.
I wasn’t looking to get published but I attached my draft story as a calling card, to further explain why I was seeking this.
He referred me to his old friend Marty, who immediately responded, asking if I would be interested in publishing this. I thought about it, including some hesitation about letting the world, or Orange Coast at least, read something like this about me. I had shared it with a few friends by way of discussing the incident. They all loved it, said I should publish it, but they are, ya know, my friends.
But here was this Chief Editor of an established print magazine saying the same thing. I explained my hesitation and Marty suggested we start working on it, see what happens, without any firm commitment on my part.
Were I looking for irony in this, it somewhat paralleled my experience with Kraft, a completely inexperienced guy being drawn into another world.
I learned a lot working with Marty, the first being that one’s writing becomes something bigger, with other stakeholders in it. Marty knew what was going to work for both him personally and his audience.
Technically, it was mostly a matter of removing areas, not drilling so deep into various issues and thoughts. The narrative and style remained unchanged, Marty’s job was mostly extractive. One element, the only one I remember, where he wanted me to change things, add something, was about what I’ve done since then. While Kraft is, oddly, virtually forgotten almost everywhere, he remains at least somewhat well know in Southern California. So there may be readers who wouldn’t believe that I had never heard of Kraft. Frankly, I think Marty was a little surprised himself.
It was a long editing process, though. My goal was to ensure that things didn’t become fictionalized or sensationalized. I was probably quite an annoyance in this, getting pedantic about the meaning of a certain word and such.
Beyond that effort, though, Marty’s real job was to convince me to actually go through with this. I nearly bailed, one time going off to play fiddle tunes w/friends under the moon and stars in Virginia and just think about this, the story itself and then now the telling of it to the world.
Even up to the last day, Orange Coast’s print deadline, long after we had a finalized version, I almost bailed, but my wife brought me back to earth, reminding me what a horrible person I’d be letting everyone down now. She’s Japanese, they are really big on teamwork and thinking about others and does a lot to balance my self-centeredness.
Really, it doesn’t feel fair at all to others. Recently, I’ve visited some writers forums, filled with people anguishing for years over getting published, sweating over dialogue, pronouns, pacing. And me a non-writer, dash something off and get this sort of reaction; the gods must be crazy. Not that my experience is unique, but definitely not the usual course.
Then there is my wife, Yukari. By way of background, Japanese folks tend to be much more of a show than tell bunch, especially with regard to feelings, compliments, advice, personal stuff about which they can be very elliptical.
This summer even, we had a discussion about how an American movie with the line “I love you” was translated in the Japanese version as “the moon is beautiful”. It has become a running joke with us; sometimes when I come home and tell her that the moon is beautiful.
The other day, we were skyping about the reaction this piece is getting and some of my trepidation about it. At one point, she texts me the simple line, “Your writing is beautiful”. I stared at that for a while, sort of processing it, so long that she even repeated, “Did you see where I said your writing is beautiful?” Not a casual thought, she was sending me a big message that I’m still thinking about.
I do have other thoughts and I’ll close my long winded response to this interview with what I sent to a very established journalist. He had sent me a long and thoughtful email encouraging me to write more.
Here it is, somewhat expanded:
When in Okinawa, I was what you would call a marksmanship instructor, but the Marine Corps calls a rifle range coach. All of us were given this as a temporary, 6 month to 1 year assignment away from our regular units because of our superior shooting scores.
The hardest position to shoot is the one you most commonly think of with shooters – standing up (offhand position). It is a very unstable position, notoriously so, compared to lying down, sitting, or kneeling, the other positions in the standard course of fire.
Hence, in this training/qualification, you only shoot offhand from 200 yards and even then shooters universally shoot their worst scores in the 200 yard offhand.
The farthest distance you shoot from is 500 yards. During the course of our duties, I once claimed to my fellow coaches, again, all pretty crack shots, that I could hit a bull’s eye from the 500 yard line in the offhand position.
They ragged me on this for a week or two, it got to be a bet/dare situation and, frankly, inside I was actually quite unsure I could do it. But finally, I attempted this, asked to use the rifle of one of my shooters who I knew had well adjusted sights (you know this when you are a coach…).
Everyone is watching, 200 eyes, the whole firing line and trainees, this is very unusual, almost unheard of on a USMC range. It also was against every rule in the book, we virtually never fired our trainee’s weapons. And then we needed a valid reason and get permission from the safety officer. So I aimed and fired rather quickly. I didn’t want to get the inevitable order to cease fire before I got the shot off.
Bang, target goes down, and, you know the answer already, comes up in the black. But not only that, it was a luscious dead center bullseye, the kind that just thrill you when shooting. F*ck yeah!
Being young and cocky, I was like, “see, told you, pay up”, but it was false swagger. I knew that it was luck and skill combined, luck the far greater part of it. And, of course, there was the audacity to even attempt the stunt, to break the rules.
I never tried this again, despite considerable further egging. For one, probably the only reason I didn’t get in trouble was because I actually got the bullseye and such a beautiful one at that. It was a remarkable shot as well as making the range staff look so studly to our shooters, both things even the officers appreciated. Had I missed, or maybe even had it not been such a perfect bullseye, the hammer likely would have been brought down upon me.
So the risk of getting in trouble were I to falter in a subsequent attempt forestalled me. But mostly, I just didn’t want to ruin the magic of that moment.
And, now, I’m afraid I may feel the same about this story & writing in general.
SE: I was really struck by your ability to create the character of Kraft as you encountered him, without letting the media reports and what you came to learn later about him overtake your memories. You make him so compelling that you even defeat the reader’s tendency to overwrite your piece with her own knowledge. Can you talk to us a little bit about the craft of capturing him, as a character in this essay?
JR: In the previous question, I addressed how I approached memory, forgetting, and overdramatization/fictionalization. I’d sum it up as just being scrupulous. Were I to give advice to one embarking on a memoir, it would be to do what I accidentally did to a great degree in this piece. That is, write up every darn thing one remembers about an event before looking into things that may create false memory issues. That becomes a later reference as one learns more from outside sources.
It is true that I read the basic facts immediately, Wikipedia article and such. But then I laid out everything I could remember, I just had to know. It was only later that, trying to reconcile glimpses, mental photographs, I dug into details like beer labels, car colors, posture, mannerisms, and so forth. And again, at first this was just to find out if this could actually be true.
I don’t feel like I took any conscious effort to develop Kraft as a character, just recalled what I remembered. Since writing this, I’ve discovered that a piece like this is in the creative nonfiction genre – facts recounted with a literary flair. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, I strove to not include anything that was truly creative.
Reading this, Kraft comes across as a bit of cipher, albeit a pleasant one. Again, that isn’t a conscious effort on my part but, given the nature of the story, seems to make a strong impression on readers. But without the serial killer aspect, which the reader knows going in, he’d just be another guy, nothing especially remarkable about him. He was intelligent, warm, friendly, that sort of thing, but not in any way that he was the brightest or warmest or friendliest guy you ever met.
November 7, 2013 § 4 Comments
Every once in a while an obituary is itself an intriguing and engaging essay, as shown here, posted to Facebook today by Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Notice the voice, the intimate detail, the surprise, the attitude. Presumably Nick wrote this, though it was not attributed:
JONATHAN ROBINSON FLYNN, the self-proclaimed “greatest writer America has yet produced,” died on a Sunday morning at the end of October in Boston. At the time of his death he was living at Roscommon, the nursing home where he’d spent his last five years of his life.
He was the subject of his son Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which chronicled his father’s life as an absent father, a bank robber, and as a federal prisoner, as well as the five years he lived as what we now call “the working poor,” sleeping in shelters and on the streets of Boston, working day labor. He made it off the streets with the help of several social workers and organizations, including Eileen O’Brien of Elders Living at Home, Jim O’Connell of Health Care for the Homeless, The Pine Street Inn, and many others. His success in getting of the streets is a model for the current Housing First movement, which has the potential to end homelessness in America.
Jonathan Robinson Flynn was born in 1929 in Scituate, Massachusetts, and always had a complicated and contentious relationship with his own father, Edmund Flynn, although Jonathan was proud that his father had, in response to the sinking of the Titanic, invented the life raft—the Titanic only had life-boats.
A ghostly, inscrutable, charming, frustrating, narcissistic, alcoholic, damaged, and damaging presence, Nick Flynn tried to understand his father in nearly all of his writing, especially in the subsequent memoirs, The Ticking is the Bomb and The Reenactments. Jonathan spent most of his life on the East Coast, between New Hampshire and Florida, often working on docks or on fishing boats in order to support his writing and his drinking. While serving time in federal prison it is likely he was subjected to CIA-funded torture experiments, which likely contributed to his later paranoia. After prison, he remained in Boston for the last 25 years of his life.
Being Flynn, the feature film based on Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, starring Robert De Niro as Jonathan Flynn, was released in 2012. Jonathan was impressed with De Niro’s performance, and enjoyed imitating De Niro (“You are me, I made you”) as he taunted Paul Dano, his on-screen son.
At the time of his death Jonathan Flynn remained convinced he would win the Nobel Prize for “both storytelling and poetry.” His one completed novel, The Button Man, remains unpublished. Along with his son Nick, he is survived by another son, Thaddeus, as well as a daughter, Anastacia.
For no good reason he outlived both of his ex-wives.
November 6, 2013 § 1 Comment
The brilliant Stephanie G’Schwind weighs in at Essay Daily this morning on what she has learned reading creative nonfiction as editor of Colorado Review. She begins with her idea of the parallel narratives that run through many of her favorite essays:
I tend to think of these narrative lines as the story on the ground and the story in the sky. Sometimes the story in the sky is closely related to the story on the ground, other times it may seem unrelated, almost random. A seemingly natural tendency has been for the parallel narrative to be research-oriented: astronomy, arachnology, historical events, etc., for example. But throughout the essay, the two narratives riff on each other, speak to each other (sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly), creating resonance, and in the end come together in such a way that they are greater than merely their sum—and we will have moved from a personal to a universal experience.
After a few well-chosen examples, she reminds us of a metaphor Eileen Pollack has shared:
She talked about the narrative—the here is what happened to me—as being like an album on a turntable. She then suggested that the central question, the reason for writing the essay, was the needle. Music, she said, is created in the friction between the question and the narrative. I really love this metaphor, and it’s easy to spin it out further: when you apply the needle to the album too timidly, it doesn’t catch and you get no music; apply it too aggressively, and you get that awful scratchy sound.
You can, and should, read the full essay here. Essay Daily will be asking a number of literary editors to weigh in on what excites them in a nonfiction essay over the soming months, including Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore. Stay tuned, y’all.
October 30, 2013 § 23 Comments
I think it has something to do with the fact that the carpenter has blueprints. The chef has recipes. And no one will complain if they build or cook the same thing twice. The writer has no such luxuries. The writer is cursed to start over, from scratch, every time. Like Sisyphus. Except the writer has to make the boulder, and each time it has to be a unique but precisely sculpted blend of levity and gravity, transcendence and relatability. In short, a miracle. By 11:59 tonight, please.
Honestly, I think the real trouble lies in that a writer doesn’t know how she does what she does. It’s not wise to admit that these days, when everyone is supposed to know everything, especially about the way they make their living. But it’s true. A writer can make herself sit at the desk and string words together, but she can’t make them be the right ones. She can try to think profound thoughts and have unparalleled insights, but trying will probably make the good stuff flee, like the soot sprites in Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro.
Writing is not so much a process of creating as it is waiting–waiting for the good stuff to show up. We writers fill up a lot of pages in the waiting, what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” Sometimes there are second drafts that are just as shitty. Or third drafts that are even worse. But the practiced writer keeps cranking out the pages until, here and there in all the crap, they see enough decent ideas or turns of phrase to make them believe they have the kernel of a story, or an essay, or a book. Then they trim out as many of the awful passages as they can bear (sometimes the awful passages can be very close to one’s heart), whittling things down to a tenth of their previous size, and the process begins again. Write, write, write, until more good stuff appears and we can throw more of the crap away.
There is no recipe. No blueprint. No line of stepping stones that will lead one to the creation of a brilliant piece of literature without moments of wandering in the dark. We writers strive to bring into being something bold, original, and heart-stoppingly magnificent. But, as clichéd as it may sound, that stuff only arrives by way of inspiration. Don’t get me wrong. We writers have to work hard. We have to show up. We have to put pen to paper or fingertip to key. We have to cry and sweat and bleed. But there’s no direct link between our suffering and the end result. Our tears, our sweat, our blood get poured out, and then, magically, from somewhere off in left field, the miracle appears. And the end result seems so disconnected from our effort that we wonder why it couldn’t have just shown up earlier, before we had that little visit to hell.
But of course, the work was necessary. The work did get us the result. It just happened somewhere in the depths of the unconscious. We couldn’t see the gears turning, the neurons firing, the gods descending and re-ascending from our little brains. And so, when it’s time to face the next blank page, we still have no clue how we do what we do.
And we’re not at all sure that it will ever happen again.
Sharon Rawlette’s work has previously appeared in Salon and the academic journal Philosophical Studies.
October 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
Brevity contributor William Bradley has written a truly perfect tribute to the power of the personal essay to promote empathy. The fact that he mentions other former Brevity authors and cites Debra Marquart’s powerful essay from our May 2008 issue is just icing on the excellent cake. A link to the full essay after the excerpt:
It’s impossible for us to live the lives of others, of course, but essays give us a record of someone else’s consciousness—the act of reading these essays and interacting with these minds on the page is the closest thing we have to telepathy in the real world. Part of the reason why I care so much about issues pertaining to racial justice is that reading James Baldwin’s experiences and thoughts in “Notes of a Native Son” and “Stranger in the Village” made the issue vividly real. These issues were personal for Baldwin, and thus became personal for me as a result of reading Baldwin. It’s likewise impossible to believe in homophobic caricatures of gay men’s predatory sexuality after reading an account of growing up gay as sensitive and affecting as Bernard Cooper’s “A Clack of Tiny Sparks.” The idea that women who have abortions are by nature selfish or unreflective is belied by essays like Debra Marquart’s “Some Things About That Day.” Similarly, unlike some of my liberal humanist friends, I know from reading David Griffith’s reflections on his Catholic faith in his essay collection A Good War is Hard to Find or Patrick Madden’s discussions on his own Mormon faith in his collection Quotidiana that there is nothing inherently reactionary or intolerant about subscribing to a religious faith.
The full essay can be read at Utne Reader.
October 24, 2013 § 3 Comments
A guest blog from Melissa Cronin:
This past weekend, in between browsing from one book vendor to the next at the Boston Book Festival, gathering swag, and schmoozing with writers of various genres, I attended a couple of workshops. Because I’ve been writing, adding to, deleting from, and restructuring my memoir for the past four years, one in particular resonated with me: “Revision and Instinct,” led by Holly LeCraw, author of the novel The Swimming Pool. Of course, there’s no magic formula for revision, otherwise I would not have attended the workshop, nor would LeCraw have had reason to lead it.
But what is the definition of revision? When LeCraw asked the audience to answer, people called out: “Hell,” “surgery,” “re-imagine,” “re-create.” LeCraw’s addition to the list: “Bravery.” Revision isn’t about the technical stuff: where to place a comma, semicolon, or quotation marks. As LeCraw said, “It’s a lot about psychology.” She then scribbled a sentence on the white board: You need to get out of your own way. In other words, during the first draft, just dump the words onto the page, don’t think too hard, “be a child,” she said, “lower your standards.” Easier said than done. If only I could stop the judging part of my brain: Why are you using the word walk instead of stroll? Why are you putting a hyphen there?
LeCraw then jotted the word prisoners on the board I squinted at my husband sitting next to me, thinking, what is she talking about? Maybe I’m in the wrong workshop. I had to be patient. She clarified: “Michelangelo’s Prisoners.” Years ago, when visiting Florence, she noticed unfinished marble blocks of figures trying to emerge from the stone. The metaphor: the first draft is the gathering of the clay to prepare for creation. “The middle is revision,” she said, which come from “instinct.” Ugh. That means trusting yourself, knowing what you’re doing. I sighed, whispered to my husband, “How does she do it?”
“Energy,” LeCraw said. I leaned forward in my chair, attentive. “The energy is not in the marble or in the prisoners trying to get out,” she continued. To explain this, she shared a scene from a short story she submitted to a journal years earlier, where the grandmother throws dishes to the floor. The journal didn’t accept it, but the editor wrote to her to say that the grandmother scene intrigued him. Others said the same, too. What was it about the scene that captured readers’ attention? Honesty. It was the first time the Grandmother was being herself.
LeCraw asked us to think about where the energy is in our own work. I closed my eyes, recalled a section of my memoir: Through the crowd of shoppers and maze of colors, I saw the peaches stacked in a pyramid. I touched a perfectly round one, picked it up. Recently tilled earth, summertime, wafted toward me. The downy flesh tickled my palm. I couldn’t wait to take the first bite – the squirt, the juices, the sugar. I heard a pop. The sound of a gunshot. The peach was in my hand then it was not. Why did my mind focus on this excerpt? Because there is action, like LeCraw’s throwing of the dishes? But energy doesn’t necessarily mean action. Like LeCraw’s marble, you “need to shave away the stuff that’s weighing you down, the stuff that bores you,” she said. What’s left is energy. I closed my eyes again, imagined shaving layers of marble from the prisoners, as if I were scrubbing dead skin from my own body, working to expose my inner self. Suddenly, I realized, for me at least, the energy is in the senses: tilled earth, downy flesh, the pop.
The challenging part, though, is how to avoid the boring stuff: over-explaining or when not enough is happening. After you cut out the part that has less energy, “think about he smallest thing that can fill the hole,” LeCraw said. For me, it’s the senses. What is it for you? Maybe it’s a precise verb or adjective.
Once you’ve finished revising, you need to do what LeCraw calls “polishing,” when the narrative becomes “rigid, ossified,” and it’s difficult to discard material. But, even then, she said, “You might find yourself in first draft mode,” if you’ve forgotten, say, a scene and have to go back and write it into the rest of the narrative. So, the truth is, writing means multitasking: writing, revising, and polishing at the same time. But what if you’re like me and you’re not good at multitasking? There’s still hope: As LeCraw said, though the start is “fuzzy, what matters is that at the end it’s yours.”
So, I leave you with an exercise LeCraw left us with: take the places in your own writing that are pregnant with energy, put them together, then delete everything else. Next, fill in the holes. Of course, you need to trust your instinct. But, if you keep scraping away at the marble, you’re bound to find the story.
Melissa Cronin received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Brevity and Hunger Mountain Journal. In addition to working on a memoir, she is a contributing writer for a local newspaper in South Burlington, VT where she lives with her husband, John.