Obsessed: Beneath Every Plot, My Mother Remains

November 24, 2015 § 9 Comments


A  guest post from Gabriela Frank:

Gabriela Frank

Gabriela Frank

How many times have I killed my mother? In reality, she died once, but if you count every essay and story of mine in which she appears, the woman has expired countless times at my hands.

In a recent workshop I was asked to share my obsessions, the topics I can’t stop writing about. My shallow confession was an addiction to travel writing—true enough, I’ve written a book about it—but that night as I lay daydreaming about my latest story, I realized that I am actually obsessed with the far-reaching effects of my mother’s death. She died of brain cancer when she was forty-five and I was sixteen. Since then, I’ve written obsessively about losing her—my journals a fire hose of raw emotion, my fiction and essays populated with quests for a sense of self—and mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters and friends, all dying of cancer.

Obsession is defined as the domination of one’s thoughts by a persistent idea; the mind experiences a rush of fulfillment whenever the object of obsession is conjured. Unlike addiction, obsession isn’t an escape into the same experience but a search for richer prizes—hidden artifacts that deepen and validate the mystery—clues, not conclusions, a delicate balance.

My mother was my best friend and the buffer between my father and me. After she died, my life escalated into a cycle of neglect and abuse. The night my dad punched a hole in the wall next to my head then begged me to lie to the nurse who cared for his broken hand, I knew I had to leave.

Twenty-five years later, my obsession with her death simmers below the surface. Tempered by time, my loss is no longer the raw anguish I felt at her passing, in 1990; instead, it’s a low hum, a sandbag of reality: my mother is dead, my world forever changed. That’s life, I reason, but a voice inside refuses to accept this.

While I never consciously adopted it as therapy, writing is how I instinctively examine the loss of my mother. As I’ve gotten older, my obsession has grown to include my mother’s inexplicable decision to remain married to my father, whom she attempted to leave several times prior to her death. Why didn’t she untether herself when she had the chance? And why, despite my befuddlement with her life choices, have I mirrored some of them?

Journals from my teens and twenties blaze with early attempts to wrestle with this—uncontrolled, unbalanced inquiry, grossly unfair to those named within. But over time, writing has been a saving alchemy, tempering my grief into malleable material, the stuff of humanity and empathy that enlivens and warms my characters, including me.

Obsession is a hunt for complexity, a drive to uncover clues that we’re positive exist behind doors we cannot yet access; finding the next portal is as much a goal as unlocking it. That is why my mother keeps turning up in my work; each doppelganger presents another locked door, another clue to puzzle over. She may appear as a woman with espresso-brown curls, an Italian with olive skin. She might be from Detroit or drive a maroon ’79 Pontiac Grand Prix. She might have a precocious daughter. She might be on the run from abuse. The only common link between these women is death.

It sounds cruel to kill them and their loved ones in my writing, but it isn’t mindless the way real death is. For instance, I can tell you why each character had to die—personal growth or karmic justice—necessary plot devices that drive stories. Isn’t that what I’m searching for when I draw my mother into my writing? Reasons to accept my loss—perhaps my teenage self needed to be taught self-reliance? Even today, I still need something to point to with certainty and say, This is why it’s okay my mother died and left me. 

After my divorce, my obsession with her boiled over again. If I could make hard choices, like ending a dysfunctional marriage, why couldn’t she? My fixation on understanding why fueled a novel and several essays in which I punished her for not being strong enough to leave my father despite her ability to leave me. It felt cathartic to write the horrible things I could never say: that I was mad at her for abandoning me at sixteen, and for not being strong enough to leave a bad marriage. I wrote and wrote until the blood finally ebbed from my ink.

As I approach 45, the heat of my obsession has reduced to a simmer. I no longer write for revenge but to explore the severed link between my mother and me, drawing on fuzzy memories and family myths to reconstruct her in relation to who I’ve become. I am learning how to love her and her flaws in the same breath, to understand the social pressures she lived under, how women’s rights were different then than they are today. My obsession is a red thread that knits it all together: love and loss, past and present, fiction and nonfiction. The tiny fissures of my scarred heart extend into both worlds.

Beneath every plot, my mother remains. To disinter her would mean undoing a part of me that I can’t live without; you cannot separate the obsession from the writer. The same goes for my teenage self—the persistent interlocutor deep inside. She is why I’m drawn to write about the great and terrible moments upon which literature and life are based, the questions that cannot be solved. I’m not ready to not be obsessed—with my mother, with love, with loss, with living. Besides, that girl inside, the one who keeps asking why, she isn’t alone in the dark—she has my mother to look after her.

Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey. Her work appears in The Rumpus, Word Riot, Works of Fiction in Progress Journal, Bird’s Thumb and ARCADE. She lives and writes in Seattle.


Sarah Einstein and Mot: The Memoir

November 23, 2015 § 1 Comment

mot-memoir-sarah-einstein-hardcover-cover-artSarah Einstein’s much-anticipated Mot: A Memoir, winner of the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction, was released in September 2015. Many of you may remember Sarah from her days as Managing Editor of Brevity (and, in fact, she is still with us on special projects.) Recently, one of Brevity’s Assistant Editors, Penny Guisinger, sat down with Sarah for a long-distance conversation about the book, an intimate examination of her friendship with a homeless veteran who often suffered frightening delusions.

PG: The book opens with a scene in which you are going to meet Mot at the KOA. Was this the first opening scene you wrote? What made you decide to open with this?

SE: Oh, gosh, no. Not by a long shot. Like most beginning writers, I started out with a whole lot of backstory. I began the piece with what is now the second chapter and worked chronologically for a long time. It wasn’t until I started getting things down—and workshopping the things I’d written—that I realized we needed to start there. And, quite probably, the writing did need to start at the very beginning, because I needed to work my way toward that opening scene. But there is no reason to make the reader do that work, too.

PG: Can you talk about the significance of the quotes that begin each chapter?

Sarah Einstein

Sarah Einstein

SE: People figure out the world in different ways; some through religious practice, some through work, some through living in community. I figure the world out by reading, and during the writing of this book, I had a lot to figure out. The authors I turned to, then, needed to somehow be present in the book itself, and the epigraphs are an attempt to do that.

PG: It’s interesting that the book is clearly your memoir, yet it’s named after another character in the story. Can you talk about that decision? Did you ever consider not naming it Mot?

SE: I tried, briefly, to find a different title for the book because I had also published an abbreviated version of the first several chapters under an essay of the same name. But I never found anything else that I thought framed the piece in the right way. This is a memoir in which the central character really isn’t the narrative character, and I wanted to make that clear to the reader from the start. Using his name for the title was the only way I found to do that.

PG: I think one of the most interesting things to know about any piece of creative nonfiction is this: what didn’t you include? Were there threads to the story that felt important at the time or during early drafts that had to be removed in service to the book?

SE: I’m a pretty minimalist writer, and for me the process was more about adding to the skeleton narrative that I developed early on rather than taking away threads that ended up not going anywhere. In early drafts, there was almost nothing about my life away from Mot, because it took me a while to understand that the reader needed to place my friendship with him within the larger context of my life at the time. I was resistant to this, because my fear was that too much of that could turn this book into exactly what I didn’t want for it to be: the story of a white middle-aged, middle class woman who finds truth through her friendship with “the other.” And that really isn’t the story at all. I wanted the reader to see Mot, not me.

Penny Guisinger

Penny Guisinger

PG: CNF writers are often in the position of telling other peoples’ stories as we tell our own. How did your ex-husband feel about your portrayal of him and/or of your marriage to him? Was there any fallout that you had to manage?

SE: I doubt very much that he has, or will, read the book. While we were still married, and I was working on early drafts, he told me to write what I needed to write and not to worry about what he thought about the work. And I’ve taken him at his word. But we are each now happily married to other people, and really not in one another’s lives any longer.

I did try, though, to be fair. To own my own failings and to explore how we both were lousy at being married to one another. Which doesn’t make either of us lousy people. Just people who mistook a single shared passion as an adequate foundation for a marriage, which it is not.

PG: At what point in your relationship with Mot did you know you would write a book about the experience?

SE: So, the writing of the book started out as a kind of intellectual sleight of hand. If you tell people, “I’m going to go visit my friend Mot in his homelessness in the American West,” they get alarmed and do their best to talk you out of it. If you add the phrase, “…because I’m going to write a book about him,” though, then suddenly everyone claps you on the back and says that’s a fascinating idea. So, I started saying I would write the book very early on.

But, of course, saying you’re going to write a book and actually writing one are very different things. I took copious notes from the start (because I don’t like to lie, and I said I was going to write a book, so I needed to take notes), but in truth I never thought I’d actually finish the manuscript, much less manage to get it published. Writing a book seemed like a very big thing to me then, bigger than I believed myself capable of at the time. And so I don’t think I knew I was going to write a book until I had finished the first polished draft of it. Up until then, I was pretty sure I was just faking it, first to have a way to explain my travels with Mot to other people, and then to manage the loneliness of his leaving.

PG: One of the things I love so much about the book was this narrator’s unfolding awareness that her efforts to “save” Mot are actually efforts to save herself. It’s a requirement of the memoirist to have that duality of brain – to be able to record in-the-moment experience while also analyzing it from afar. Did you have that awareness as the events of the book unfolded? Or was uncovering that realization part of the writing process?

SE: One of my biggest struggles with this work was trying to make myself known to the reader on the page, because in many ways, I’m not a very self-reflective person. It’s a genuine personal failing of mine. People would ask, “Why are you doing this?” and for the longest time I couldn’t think of an answer beyond, “Because it’s interesting to me.” At the time of living these experiences, that seemed like enough to me, and I didn’t try to puzzle out a why.

But every early reader—and I was lucky, my early readers were excellent writers and pioneers in the genre, including people like Kevin Oderman and Brevity’s own Dinty W. Moore, so I knew enough to listen to them—kept insisting that I delve deeper. And it was only in later drafts, when I had some distance from the events, that I came to realize how much of my friendship with Mot was also about reclaiming parts of myself I’d lost to a lousy job, a failing marriage, and just the ennui of middle age. But, having said that, I also hope it doesn’t get lost that Mot was my friend because he was a generous, intelligent, entertaining person who cared for me as deeply as I cared for him, and that the point of the friendship was always and only the friendship itself. But I think that every significant relationship changes us in important ways, and in this case, I was lucky to have been changed for the better.

Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014), and numerous essays and short stories. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is also the Special Projects editor for Brevity and the prose editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection. 

Penny Guisinger is the author of the book Postcards from Here, which will be released by Vine Leaves Press in February 2016. Her essay “Coming Out” was named a notable in 2015 Best American Essays. Other work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity, the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.

The Alloy of Hybrid Prose: Rose Metal’s 10th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest

November 20, 2015 § 2 Comments

From our fine friends at Rose Metal Press (aka the amazing Abby and Kathleen):


Submit, All Ye Faithful! Joyful and Hybrid-umphant!

From November 1 through December 1, we’re holding our 10th Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest reading period, so it’s time to gather your best flash (1,000 words or less) and compile them into an amazing 25-40-page manuscript. Flash fiction and flash nonfiction welcome.

If our contest were having a wedding anniversary, it’d be the tin/aluminum one, which seems coincidentally fitting since our press is named after a metal, Rose Metal, an alloy typically used to solder things together. This act of blending two things to make something new has always struck us as apt given our aims as a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres.

To celebrate a decade of our contest, one of the first and few chapbook contests for prose, this year we’re offering a monetary prize to the winner. In addition to having his/her manuscript published as a limited edition chapbook with letterpressed covers and an introduction by the contest judge—the fabulous Ira Sukrungruang—this year’s winner will receive $200.

It’s been an inspiring 10 years of reading many worthy submissions and seeing what gem of a manuscript the judge selects. Past winners include Claudia Smith, Geoffrey Forsyth, Sean Lovelace, Mary Hamilton, Tiff Holland, Aaron Teel, Kim Henderson, Todd Seabrook, and Rosie Forrest, whose chapbooks you can read about in our catalog.  (http://rosemetalpress.com/Catalog/catalog.html)

We look forward to seeing who Ira will choose as our 10th winner. It could be you—but not if you don’t submit! Learn more about the contest and submit by Dec. 1 here. (http://rosemetalpress.com/Submit/Submit.html)

A Review of R. Claire Stephens’ Lady in Ink

November 18, 2015 § 1 Comment

zzinkBy William Bradley

Several years ago, Ira Sukrungruang emailed me to ask me to contribute an essay for an anthology he wanted to put together about essayists writing about their tattoos. I really, really dig Ira’s work, and I really admire the magazine and chapbook publisher Sweet, which he co-created, so I was honored to be asked and onboard for anything he had in mind. The only problem was, I didn’t have a tattoo.

Still, I really wanted to be a part of this anthology, so I started planning. I could get a tattoo and write about the experience, I thought. Treat it like a literary journalism project. Research tattoos, figure out exactly what I wanted and where, pay close attention to the tattoo parlor and the process itself. This could be great, I thought.

My wife is usually really good about subtly discouraging my terrible ideas, but this one didn’t even merit her customary, “Are you sure?” Instead, she flat-out replied, “That is a stupid idea, and you’re not wasting our money on it.”

My wife was, of course, right. I didn’t actually want a tattoo—I wanted to work with Ira Sukrungruang, because Ira’s awesome. But permanently altering my appearance—even in a way that could easily be concealed by a T-shirt—was probably not the best way to work with a writer and editor I admire. Especially considering the fact that the anthology itself didn’t wind up happening.

I am happy to say that I have since had plenty of opportunities to work with Ira, and that in fact he recently asked me to review Sweet’s latest chapbook, R. Claire Stephens’ Lady in Ink: A Comics Essay.  This illustrated essay, coincidentally enough, is also concerned with tattoos. And identity. And sexuality. And all sorts of other ideas that come to mind as the essayist considers and illustrates the illustrations on her own skin and the skins of others.

While graphic novels and graphic memoirs are widely read and celebrated, it seems to me that the graphic essay—that is to say, sequential art more concerned with ideas than story—is a relatively new form, and so Stephens is to be commended as something of a trailblazer. But this chapbook has more going for it than mere novelty—it also happens to be really, really good. Stephens writes that, “I thought a tattoo might give me control—over my fear, but also over what men saw when they looked at me. I wanted confidence, composure, violence of spirit.” That getting a tattoo did not automatically transform her into a brave and confident warrior woman is one of the themes of the entire essay, but paradoxically the work also demonstrates a writer and artist who seems both skilled and fearless. The sequential art used to render scenes and action is clear and detailed, as is the art that is used to illustrate the essay’s ideas. I have, at times, read autobiographical comics that I thought did not actually need to be illustrated—they would have worked just as well in plain prose. But Stephens’s subject matter obviously lends itself to an illustrated treatment. What’s more, Stephens’s art is as strong as her writing is—and that is quite strong indeed.

I have always had a certain admiration for people who get tattoos. I’ve always felt that getting an image or phrase or word etched into one’s skin was a sign of knowing exactly what mattered, what was so important that it needed to be permanently displayed. That’s one reason why my wife was right to tell me getting a tattoo was a bad idea for me—I don’t really have an image or phrase or word that matters that much to me (and getting my wife’s name tattooed onto my arm would seem to just invite disaster—Wino Forever, anyone?). But the most powerful reflection in Lady in Ink comes from Stephens’s admission that, in fact, her tattoo did not demonstrate confidence—it was, instead, an act designed to inspire confidence, a display of a strength that didn’t actually exist for her. At least not at the time. It’s in this revelation of uncertainty and possible weakness that, in fact, Stephens demonstrates her strength as both a writer and an artist.
William Bradley‘s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals. His essay collection Fractals is now available for pre-order from Lavender Ink.

Editor’s Insight Into Redivider’s Blurred Genre Contest

November 17, 2015 § 2 Comments

From the editors at Redivider:

afl03_aerofilms_c11965AO_1.jpgOn November 15, Redivider opened submissions for our first annual Redivider Blurred Genre Contest: Flash Fiction, Flash Nonfiction, and Prose Poetry, and we couldn’t be more excited. Submissions are $6 each, $11 for two, $15 for three, and the $15 submission includes a complimentary, one-year digital subscription to our magazine. Each piece, no matter the genre, must come in at 750 words or fewer, and submissions close on December 31. Entrants may submit as many times as they’d like, to as many categories as they’d like. One winner from each of the three categories will win $250.

Check out the official guidelines.

We have wonderful cast of judges, including Pamela Painter for flash fiction. Author of three story collections and winner of numerous awards, Pamela often works and teaches classes in “very short stories.” About her latest book, Wouldn’t You Like to Know, Alice Hoffman writes, “Pamela Painter has perfected the short short.”

Jerald Walker will judge flash nonfiction. A widely published and anthologized essayist, Jerald won the 2011 PEN New England Nonfiction Award for Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption.

John Skoyles, Ploughshares poetry editor and author of seven books, will field entries for prose poetry. He knows the turf, too, as his collection of prose hybrids, The Nut File, is forthcoming from Quale Press.

The purpose of this contest is to explore, nurture, and celebrate the porous genre boundaries within and between flash prose and prose poetry. These hybrid genres seem to present as many similarities as they do differences. While fiction and nonfiction are often difficult to tell apart–both leaning on reality and imagination–their flash forms also demand attention to the immediacy and lyricism so often found in poetry. Meanwhile, poetry distills reality, imagination, immediacy, lyricism, and more, but written as prose, it sidesteps many of its own formal distinctions. Still, the only definitive similarity between these three genres resides in their form: the phrase, the clause, the sentence, the paragraph. Beyond that, things get slippery.

Subverting expectations. Transgressing boundaries. Challenging norms. Works of flash prose and prose poetry flout conventions of length, line breaks, and genre. Some minimize and some undermine. Some climax and some abscond. Some ache and some reveal. Relying on the tension and elasticity of language to hold their parts together, they de-privilege the ponderous ruminations and rigid strictures of the leisure class; they start late and finish early; they force their readers to ask, what is this?

To approach an answer to what this is, let’s ask around:

Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore, in his introduction to The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, is reticent to pin down the flash nonfiction genre. Strictly defining art forms, he writes, “is ultimately a fruitless exercise,” so he resorts to metaphor. There’s a fire in forest, Moore says, and if the traditional essayist wanders toward it from the edge of the woods, the flash writer parachutes in and “starts the reader right at that spot, at the edge of the fire, or as close as one can get without touching the actual flame.”

So flash nonfiction burns, glows, radiates heat. Do the others?

Writing about flash fiction, Redivider contributor and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler articulates a similar burning core. In “A Short Short Theory,” appearing in Rose Metal Press’ fiction counterpart to their nonfiction guide, Butler writes, “To be brief, it is a short short story and not a prose poem because it has at its center a character who yearns.” To Butler, a character’s yearning can drive the genre distinction.

But what about prose poetry? Should we expect it to burn, to yearn?

At poets.org, our friends at the Academy of American Poets opt for simplicity in their terms. “Though the name of the form may appear to be a contradiction,” they write, “the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry.” So a prose poem is simply a poem in prose’s clothing, characterized by “techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme.” There seems here no exclusion of characters yearning or parachutes for that matter, just as neither Moore nor Butler dismiss poetic technique in the prose of their home genres.

So how can we tell what a brief, short, flashy, poetic piece of prose is?

What if a piece simply is what it says it is? What if the only true distinction between flash fiction, flash nonfiction, and prose poetry is that the pieces refer to themselves as such things? But then, each stems from its parent genre, even though flash nonfiction is as far from an essay as the spark from the fire; flash fiction from the short story as the tree from the forest; prose poetry from traditional poetry as the fire jumper from her family. These forms flicker and overlap, leaving a flash in our vision, a crackle in our ears, a whiff of toasted tree sap in the air.

But wait!, you say. We-who-read-literature inherently know the difference between poetry and prose, between fiction and non. Or do we? Can we? Should we? These are the questions we at Redivider, through our Blurred Genre Contest, seek not to answer, but to explore.

We look forward to reading your work, and to nurturing these slippery and subversive literary genres for years to come.

For questions or comments, email us at editor@redividerjournal.org.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Hot and Bothered: Writing about Sexuality at BinderCon

November 16, 2015 § 2 Comments

A guest post from Gila Lyons:

The Panelists

The Panelists

Two weekends back, about 500 women and gender non-conforming writers gathered at NYU’s campus for the second annual BinderCon, a conference whose stated purpose is to “empower women and gender non-conforming writers with the tools, connections, and strategies they need to advance their careers.”

The conference is an offshoot of Out of the Binders, a women’s writing collective of thousands of women formed in response to Mitt Romney’s gaffe during the 2012 presidential debates that he had “whole binders full of women,” referring to job applicants he’d received as Massachusetts governor. Panels and sessions ranged from Hot and Bothered: Exploring Sex/Desire in Creative Non-fiction and Fiction, to Pitching 101, to The Art of the Ghost: We Write Because They Can’t, and keynotes from Lizz Winstead, Jenn Pozner, Suki Kim, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and more.

Glia Lyons

Gila Lyons

Here’s my recap of one of the most inspiring and instructive panels, Hot and Bothered: Exploring Sex/Desire in Creative Non-fiction and Fiction, which explored writing about desire, sex and sexuality in nonfiction and fiction, focusing on the work of women of color and queer women, and paying special attention to writing beyond shame, fear, and dealing with the ramifications of being a sexually empowered woman who will receive violent threats, judgment, and nasty comments from those threatened by such a woman.

Anna March:

March opened by claiming, “If you’re not a white 25-year-old cis guy and you’re writing about sex, you’re transgressive.” She quoted Rebecca Walker who said, “Good therapy leads to good writing, and good writing leads to good therapy, and I can’t imagine doing one without the other.” She shared that the two best pieces of craft advice she’s ever received: “1) sit down and 2) write.” Also, read well, and read variously.

March encouraged women who want to write about sex and sexuality to develop a network of writers, “not supportive people who will say, well honey, this is causing you trouble, so stop doing that.” But other writers who will encourage you to keep going even when nasty comments come in, harsh judgments, or threats. “It’s normal to have fear of what you’re revealing about yourself,” she said. “Acknowledge that. And let’s kill that motherfucker shame. Every time I’ve shared things I’m most ashamed of, my life has become so much richer. People come forth and say ‘me too,’ or ‘I’ve never been able to tell this.’”

March discussed the ethics of writing about sexuality, especially when writing nonfiction and others and their privacy are involved. She recommends:

  • be respectful and work it out with them ahead of time – what they’re comfortable with, if they want any edits made, if they want their identity concealed.
  • Remember that other people can want their privacy, and that’s fine, but you have a right to tell your story.

And you should do it even though this world is not a hospitable place for it. “We get told our lives don’t matter,” she said, “pregnancy, equal pay, our sexual lives, they don’t matter. There’s a rise in women essayists right now and a corresponding rise in being told to shut up. Be love in the face of hate. Because what else is there to do?” She ended with a powerful quote from Muriel Rukeyser, “If one woman told the truth about her life the world would split open.” Let’s split it.

Sofia Quintero:

“Let your sex writing be aspirational. My characters have much more exciting sex lives than I do. You will be exploring, expanding, and healing your own love map by writing about sexuality, even if no one else sees it,” Quintero said. She recommended Exploring Your Sexual Self: A Guided Journal, by Joan Mazza, which offers writing prompts and exercises to put women in touch with their sexual truths and desires. Quintero led the audience through a quick writing prompt from the book, “If you could say three things about the nature of your personal sexuality and really be heard and accepted and understood, what would you say?”

Quintero advised writers to cultivate compassionate awareness of their own sexuality – including what excites, intrigues, repulses, and scares them – in order to increase ease and competence in writing sex scenes. She recommended the book, Sex and Money …Are Dirty, Aren’t They? by Cheri Huber to explore and work through thoughts and ideas about sex.

Finally, Quintero wanted attendees to remember that the rules of good craft apply to erotica. “Setting, conflict, character are even more important when your characters are having sex. No one person engages in sex the same way every time. Really great sex scenes tell you about something other than sex.” Her final book recommendation was Juicy Mangos: An Erotica Collection, edited by Michelle Herrera Mulligan, for the “tremendous characters” in its stories.

LaShonda Katrice Barnett:

Barnett described the protagonist of her novel, Jam on the Vine, as an African-American lesbian living during the Jim Crow era who is sexually free and fulfilled. She wanted to have a black heroine who did not have sexual violence done against her, as so many black heroines do, but to have her filled with passion and lust and love and see where that would take her. “I had to fight to keep a dildo scene in the end of the book,” Barnett said. “My editor said, ‘No one ends a literary novel with a sex scene,’ but I wanted to end on an up note, a celebratory vibe.” She fought for it so readers would get to know a different type of black woman who owns her own sexual prowess.

Barnett credited Zora Neale Hurston with the best masturbation scene she’d ever read, the one in Their Eyes Were Watching God – and with writing the first black sexually empowered female character that pursues what she wants with great passion. She urged writers, “Mine your sexual experiences in your writing so they become autobiographical ethnography – our stories have so much power they begin to speak for the whole of us. Shun shame. Claim your sexuality because it’s part of your humanity.”

Ashley C. Ford:

Ford described her work as addressing sex, gender, sexuality, and race, seeking to honor the entire spectrum of sexual experience, “which means they’re not all good, passionate and can be kind of funny.” She writes about budding sexuality, specifically for young women “who get such mixed messages about their bodies and sexuality in general as they’re growing up and having their bodies mature before they’re actually ready to engage in sexual activity. How do you explore that?” She continued, “Black girls’ bodies seem to mature faster than white bodies,” and Ford is interested in exploring in her work how adolescent black girls are treated by men.

She also talked about being bi-sexual and being in a relationship with a cis man, and how much she didn’t want her current relationship status to discount her queer identity. She referenced an essay she wrote for Buzzfeed, My Boyfriend And I Came Out To Each Other about her and her first boyfriend coming out to each other after dating for six years. She also talked about the ethical issues in privacy of loved ones, as she maintains a column, Disrupting Domesticity at The Toast about living with her boyfriend while dealing with her PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

Jaclyn Friedman:

Friedman asserted, “The most important sexual relationship you’ll have is one with yourself.” She spoke about her most recent book, What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety not as a self help book that communicates, “you’re broken and this book will fix you,” rather as a book that says, “you’re fine, the world is broken, here’s how you can have good sexuality in a broken world.”

She said that for her writing about sexuality inherently meant writing as a survivor of sexual assault, and when she did that “all the trolls came out.” She actually doesn’t like to call them trolls, “They’re abusers, harrassers, ‘trolls’ sounds harmless and funny, they’re not, they’re abusers,” she said. Friedman admitted that nasty comments and threats can get to her, “I do take to my bed,” she said. But then she gets up and continues to work for women’s sexual safety and freedom. “I’m Jewish,” she said, “and there’s a Jewish saying that really helps me – It’s not yours to complete the work but neither is it yours to desist from it. It’s important to be part of a community so you can tap in and tap out.” When you need to take a break for self-care, she explained, take a break, shut off your devices, and tap out. When you’re ready, return. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “We come here to decolonize the body and we end up talking about violence and fear,” Friedman noted. “Whatever makes it possible for you to keep doing the work, that’s what I recommend you do.”

Panelist Bios:

Anna March’s essays and creative non-fiction have appeared in Modern Love in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Salon, The Rumpus, Tin House, PANK and numerous other publications. Her memoir, The Spectacular Remains, and novel, The Diary of Suzanne Frank, are forthcoming and she is at work on a collection of essays, Feminist Killjoy.

Ashley C. Ford is an essayist, editor and columnist whose work in Elle, PANK magazine, The Rumpus, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, and Literary Orphans addresses sexuality, gender and race.

Jaclyn Friedman is author or Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety. Friedman has been a guest on PBS News Hour, the BBC and numerous other radio and television shows, and her commentary has appeared in outlets including CNN, Time, The Washington Post, The Nation, Jezebel and The Huffington Post. She is a founder and the former Executive Director of Women, Action & the Media as well as a charter member of CounterQuo, a coalition dedicated to challenging the ways we respond to sexual violence.

Self-professed “Ivy League homegirl” Sofia Quintero is a writer, producer, activist, educator and speaker. Under the pen name Black Artemis, Sofia is the author of several hip-hop novels for adults including Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’ and Burn which are assigned in college courses across the nation. Under her real name she has published the chick –lit novel Divas Don’t Yield and her award-winning debut YA novel Efrain’s Secret and numerous short stories and novellas. Her latest novel is Show and Prove.

Novelist and playwright LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s debut novel, Jam on the Vine, was an Editor’s Choice pick at the Chicago Tribune and earned the Emerging Writers Award at the 2015 Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. She is also the editor of I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters On Their Craft and the story collection Callaloo. Twice-nominated for the 2015 Pushcart prize for her short fiction, Barnett holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.


Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, Ploughshares, Brevity, Tablet, and other publications. Links to published work can be found at www.gilalyons.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gilalyons

The Commodity of Others’ Lives

November 11, 2015 § 7 Comments

51KdglJZ7CL._SX389_BO1,204,203,200_Short nonfiction storytelling–often photo-driven, largely consumed on social media and at events staged in bars–is enjoying a vogue. Which personally, I like. The Moth is one of my favorite venues, I enjoy Jeff Sharlet’s micro-essays on Instagram and post my own.

But as a “storyteller,” am I ducking my responsibility to the people who figure in my work? Am I appropriating their stories? Is mine the best point of view to deliver their experience?

In The New Yorker, Vinson Cunningham reviews Humans of New York–first a series of Facebook posts, now a book. Author/photographer Brandon Stanton has compiled his work and published with St. Martins, even as he moves into new Humans territory in Iran, India and Pakistan.

Cunningham doesn’t like it. He compares the work (unfavorably) to the social justice journalism of Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell, James Agee and Walker Evans, and Jacob Riis. He posits:

The quick and cavalier consumption of others has something to do with Facebook, Humans of New York’s native and most comfortable medium. The humans in Stanton’s photos—just like the most photogenic and happy-seeming and apparently knowable humans in your timeline—are well and softly lit, almost laminated; the city recedes behind them in a still-recognizable blur. We understand each entry as something snatched from right here, from someplace culturally adjacent, if not identical, to the watcher’s world; there’s a sense (and, given Stanton’s apparent tirelessness, a corresponding reality) that this could just as easily be you, today, beaming out from the open windowpane of someone else’s news feed. Any ambiguity or intrigue to be found in a HONY photo is chased out into the open, and, ultimately, annihilated by Stanton’s captions, and by the satisfaction that he seems to want his followers to feel.

But maybe it’s OK to want the reader/viewer to feel kinship, immediacy, identification. Maybe satisfying stories have their own charm. Our editor here at Brevity, Dinty W. Moore, advocates that a piece is by definition not ‘nonfiction’ if you make stuff up, change the timeline, or condense characters. I’d add that it’s very possible, through selective leaving-out and keeping-in, to form a messy, chaotic, even improbable story into a tight bundle of nuance, character growth, temporal journey, and yes, satisfaction.

Check out Cunningham’s review and tell us what you think.


Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.


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