Defining the Ideal Essay

October 1, 2014 § 9 Comments

Samantha Tucker Iacovetto

A guest post from Samantha Tucker Iacovetto:

There is this leaning in that happens when I read an ideal essay. It’s like peering over the gilded edge of the Grand Canyon; like stepping on tip-toe to secret out the scent of my husband’s glorious beard; like pressing my nose to the glass at the zoo’s lion exhibit, his breath and mine steaming the opposite sides of the barrier.

When an essayist like, say, Lia Purpura drops the reader into a space like that—a space that is a precipice, a tipping point, a long and unblinking gaze into an unassuming sugar egg—I lean in, and succumb to the vertigo.

“Lean in!” My mother barks through the phone when I lament the stresses of graduate school, of teaching college composition, of finding time to write something that beckons. She is full of handy and irritating blue-collar colloquialisms: “Self-responsibility!” “You better look at the man in the mirror!” “Don’t put all those eggs in one basket!” Now I find myself weaving her philosophies in and out of the classes I teach, where I insist rhetoric and composition is not just a mandatory class on writing, but instead, a conduit for social activism. Her philosophies demanded me a place in academia, accompany the family histories I record, and guided me away from the manifest destinies of a small town upbringing, a food-stamped childhood, a drug-addicted father.

I once read not to lean towards something but, instead, away from everything else. The library in Fountain, Colorado, insists on metaphor: it waits between the two sets of railroad tracks that dissect my town into “rich” and “poor.” Reading was the one-way ticket out.

Now that I’m gone, I find myself constantly looking, leaning back in the other direction.

Joan Didion says to “keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.” I nod in autoethnographic ways; I situate the history of a family—from a military town with a crumbling red, white and blue façade—in a universal, cultural context. Throughout my search for causalities, I keep on nodding terms in this way: wherever I’ve lived in the past ten years, I have put up a large National Geographic map. I pinpoint our latitudes and longitudes. At once we are—were—global, my family and I: my mother in Fountain, my sister at a Naval base in Spain, me and my husband teaching in South Korea, my brother—then, now, forever—in Iraq.

An ideal essay is hard to define, but easy to point to. An ideal essay mines the “I” in efforts of high exposition. It is driven by a need to testify or witness, and demands the same of its reader. It is a glimpse of something uncomfortably recognizable, a requiem for the quotidian, a look over the newly-gilded edge.

And so, I read—I write: to keep on nodding terms, to examine the arc of my, of our, leanings.

____
Samantha Tucker Iacovetto is a nonfiction MFA candidate at (The!) Ohio State University. She has written for the Colorado Review blog, Show Business Weekly, and Springs Magazine. Sam’s first collection of essays, The American Dream Starts Here, is nearly finished—and in need of a publisher.

A Second Pass at Overpass Into Fog

May 19, 2014 § 1 Comment

churchSteven Church discusses the whys and wherefores of his brilliant essay “Overpass into Fog,” found in the most recent issue of Brevity:

When I wrote “Overpass Into Fog” most of it came out in one mad rush. I was trying to warp and stretch time on the page perhaps because I was interested in how a moment can seem to expand and swell until it is distended with meaning. I don’t mean some kind of epiphany where the movement is linear, from darkness to light. It’s not that easy. Instead I’m thinking about those moments where the laws of physics seem to bend to the meaning-making part of your brain and time actually slows down or speeds up, or leaps forward and backward, where the movement is wild, circular, digressive, and recursive, but still pinned to a specific time and space, and to a unique consciousness. I’m thinking about those moments where a second takes a minute to complete its spin around the clock, and a minute can stretch on for hours, where time stops or slows and bends; those moments where colors seem to make noise and everything shimmers and quakes with resonance. It’s a kind of suspended animation, where movement is arrested, paused, stretched and manipulated. That moment on the 1-80 overpass, lost in the fog, felt that way; and I like to believe I’m not the only one who experiences such ecstatic fugue states of thought and emotion.

We talk about how “time flies” when we’re absorbed in a great book, even if what we experience is really more of a timelessness, a suspension of our awareness of clock-time. We feel lost in another world, “transported” to other realities, even if we are seated in a chair. It’s a kind of out-of-body experience created by words on the page, a seductive mix of emotion and intellect; and I guess I wanted to create a similar kind of time-travel in an essay, but in a smaller space, in just seven hundred and fifty words. My daughter, who is still learning how to read time on a clock, tells time by how it feels and, for her, a thirty-minute wait for ice cream feels like it lasts a day. Because it feels that way it is that way, and there is a truth beyond physics to this emotional understanding of time. The moment in my car on the 1-80 overpass felt like it lasted forever. And it did. It’s still happening.

The essay was also probably in many ways inspired by the craft of writers like Ben Miller, who creates impossibly long and ornate scenes that unfold from a single moment like those intricate pop-up books where an entire world blooms from the page; and Rebecca Solnit who crafts sentences that begin often in an image or idea and then expand exponentially, seemingly chaotically, like fractal patterns before collapsing back down in a satisfying exhale of breath and symmetry. It was probably also inspired by the exquisitely detailed meditations of Lia Purpura on a pin, a color, a word, or a walk. I suppose I was also trying to do what so many essays in Brevity are able to do — go big places in small spaces. And finally, the essay was inspired by love, or at least by the possibility of love in the wake of loss.

 

 

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 Slate.com. He has never won a Pushcart Prize.

 

 

 

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 Slate.com. He has never won a Pushcart Prize.

AWP 2014 :The I or the Eye

March 10, 2014 § 3 Comments

eye-black-white-ppt-backgrounds-powerpointGuest blogger Nora Maynard reviews the panel, “The I or the Eye: The Narrator’s Role in Nonfiction”

 “You think you’re yourself, but there are other persons in you.”

-John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

Blogging about an AWP panel on how to craft an appropriate nonfiction narrator feels a little like stepping into a funhouse hall of mirrors.

Writing this post, I find myself becoming more self-conscious than usual about what all nonfiction writers have no choice but to do: put together narrators that are, while at the same time aren’t quite, true versions of ourselves.

As I type this, I feel hyper-aware of myself writing in a voice. (But which one, which me this time? The earnest, Latinate word-using one from university? The cheerful, forthright, service journalist one? The just-the-facts-ma’am, board meeting minutes-taking one? The introspective, image-filled, personal essay-writing one?)

And as I review all that took place in that conference room in Washington State Convention Center the last week, I also find myself thinking about the distinctive voices of the panel’s four presenters: Michael Steinberg, Lia Purpura, Phillip Lopate, and Robert Root, all extraordinarily accomplished, yet contrastingly different, nonfictionists, each using a unique voice to describe his or her own distinctive approach to, yes, nonfiction narrative voice.

It’s all kind of dizzying.

But now it’s time for this “I” to step aside and become an “eye.” Here’s a little sampling of what each panelist said:

1. Michael Steinberg: Where to sit? Center stage–or off?

Moderator Michael Steinberg explained that Elyssa East, who played a key role in the planning and development of the panel, recently had a baby and wasn’t able to attend the conference. Steinberg talked about East’s book Dogtown, which is largely a work of investigative journalism, but includes a very personal section about what drew her to her subject in the first place. Steinberg said the book got him thinking about why some narrators are situated center stage, while others sit in the periphery, offstage. How do we, as writers, choose?

Steinberg offered this quotation from David Shields: “Find the form that releases your best intelligence. Find what you do exquisitely well and play it to the hilt.”

2. Lia Purpura: Step away from the self

Lia Purpura pointed out some of the pitfalls of being overly self-conscious as a writer. She acknowledged that “a strong voice is a powerful idea-delivery system,” but warned that “talking about voice an awful lot as a creator, and too early on in the process may put pressure on the writer to compose in a certain way, that is, to be led by attitude, to foreground a personality–at the expense of recognizing other generative gestures.”

She suggested that a writer might do best to stay alert and open to the new, the unexpected, and the mysterious during the process of writing, rather than adhering to a pre-determined voice. But she also acknowledged the paradox of any attempt to truly sidestep one’s own self: “I move through everything I write as, well, me.”

3. Phillip Lopate: Focus on your contradictions and conflicts

Phillip Lopate traced the roots of his own interest in narrator as character back to an early love of Dostoevsky. He recalled how much he enjoyed the voice of the ranting, first-person narrator of Notes from Underground, quoting the novel’s opening lines: “I am a sick man….I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver.”

He also cited the cheekily provocative tone used by the philosopher Nietzsche, as well as Browning’s self-revealing, unreliable narrator in the poem “My Last Duchess” as other early influences. He advised writers to focus on their own internal contradictions and conflicts as a way of building narrative tension and interest. He encouraged us all to embrace what Frank O’Hara once called “the catastrophe of one’s personality.”

4. Robert Root: Approximate your authentic self

Robert Root listed some of the many hats he’s worn as a writer: “rhetorical-slash-literary academic, a composition-slash-creative nonfiction teacher, a radio commentator, an en plein air essayist, a memoirist,” and described some of the problems of hopping from genre to genre. He recalled how he was once taken to task by an editor for including a joke in an academic article, then later criticized by a book reviewer for being too academic when he used the word “persona” in a book he wrote about E. B. White. Root spoke about the importance of, as writer of creative nonfiction, transcending the conventions and expectations of genre and remaining true to one’s own authentic self.

He wrapped up the afternoon’s discussion with these final words:

“In creative nonfiction, we not only have the freedom but also the necessity of being narrative and expository or experiential and reflective in the same work, to simultaneously be both the I and the Eye in the same essay, even in the same paragraph. For me, that involves listening to myself and being alert for signs of a split personality, making sure I am the first person who is speaking, keeping myself—even when I’m offstage—the matter of my book.”

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Nora Maynard‘s work has appeared in Salon, Drunken Boat, the Ploughshares blog, and The Millions, among others. She recently finished her ninth marathon and first novel. Visit her website at http://www.noramaynard.com/.

Exploring the Fringes of Nonfiction

March 2, 2013 § 5 Comments

blurring boundariesA guest post from B.J. Hollars, editor of Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction:

One day I woke troubled by the hard fact about facts; that is, that their factuality is often in flux.  Sure, the world is round today, I reasoned, but hadn’t that observation once nearly cost Galileo his life?  And more recently (and perhaps more troubling to my own understanding of the universe): Wasn’t Pluto once a planetWhat the hell happened to Pluto anyway?

My heart broke further upon learning that not even photographs were as factual as I gave them credit for.  Take National Geographic’s 1982 cover photo—the one of the Pyramid’s of Giza—which, as a child, was solely responsible for hurling me headlong into my mummy phase.  Imagine my surprise when I learned, decades later, that those pyramids weren’t exactly as they appeared.  That those pyramids were, in fact, the victims of a digital alteration.  Apparently, an overzealous layout editor had crammed them tightly together so the photo could better fit the magazine’s frame.

If we can move an ancient pyramid with the click of a finger, I reasoned, who’s to say how far we’ll go?

As my grumbling grew louder, I began to realize that my frustration with facts was far less productive than my exploration of their unreliability.  And I figured if anything could put truth in a headlock and wrestle it into submission, it was the essay.  Not just any essay, mind you, but an essay that understood the value of the surprise attack, one willing to get the jump on truth by coming at it in a new way.

And so, weighing in at 268 pages, I humbly present to you Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction—an anthology of genre-bending essays that (at least according to the back cover copy) continually toe the line between “truth and memory, honesty and artifice, facts and lies.”  Rather than whining ad nauseam about pyramids and Pluto, I asked 20 of today’s most renowned writers and teachers to help me put truth on trial by fiddling with form, fragmentation, structure, sequence, and all the other traditional conventions essay writers hold so dear.  I was seeking a new definition of nonfiction—or at least a renewed debate on the matter—and I was grateful for the legion of intrepid explorers who dared enter into the wilderness alongside me.  Writers like Marcia Aldrich, Monica Berlin, Eula Biss, Ryan Boudinot, Ashley Butler, Steven Church, Stuart Dybek, Beth Ann Fennelly, Robin Hemley, Naomi Kimbell, Kim Dana Kupperman, Paul Maliszewski, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, Dinty W. Moore, Susan Neville, Brian Oliu, Lia Purpura, Wendy Rawlings and Ryan Van Meter.

Not only did they embark into this wilderness by offering their essays, but they even provided helpful maps in the form of mini-essays—each of which sought to give the reader new insight into the writer’s own explorations of genre.  Add to this pedagogically-practical and thematically-linked writing exercises, and readers now had a complete guidebook for this burgeoning terrain.

Taken together, these essays challenge and confound, but it’s my hope that they might also create a new space for the essay form, or at least encourage other writers to assist in mapping a landscape we know little about.

Who among us will put the pyramids back to scale or return Pluto to its planetary state?

Or more importantly, who will subvert what we think we know by showing us what we don’t?

Help Set the Welcome Table

February 11, 2013 § 2 Comments

YouBeing an independent publisher is tough going these days, but being an independent publisher focusing on the personal essay tradition can be an even bigger challenge. Those of us who love the form love it madly, but in truth, we may be a small number   Welcome Table Press is trying to thrive despite these odds, and to that end they have launched an IndieGoGo campaign. You can read all about it, see the video, and contribute to the cause here.

Meanwhile, here’s a summary of their plans:

All contributions collected from this Indiegogo campaign will be directed toward the continued printing and distribution of our first two print books, YOU. AN ANTHOLOGY OF ESSAYS DEVOTED TO THE SECOND PERSON, edited by Kim Dana Kupperman, with Heather G. Simons & James M. Chesbro, and ESSAYING THE ESSAY, edited by David Lazar.

YOU. AN ANTHOLOGY is a first-of-its-kind collection, featuring essays that explore failure, planetary movement, and love, among a variety of topics. The up close and personal candor of these autobiographical, lyric, personal, and segmented narratives is tempered by the distance, intimacy, humor, and unsentimental tenderness that the second-person point of view affords both writer and reader.

ESSAYING THE ESSAY is a must-have compendium of essays on the essay, showcasing diverse meditations on the form by a wide range of writers throughout history, including Michel de Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Virginia Woolf, Cynthia Ozick, Phillip Lopate, Robert Atwan, Lia Purpura, and John D’Agata.

Your support will help build our self-sufficiency (pre-press, printing, and advertising are expensive; the larger the print run, the lower the cost per title; distributing books costs money too).

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