March 11, 2014 § 1 Comment
In the fall of 2008, when I was knee-deep in new motherhood, I received an unexpected opportunity. Maggie Messitt, a friend of mine from graduate school, wanted to know if I’d join her and another Goucher grad, Carrie Kilman, on a literary adventure of sorts.
The plan was for the three of us to launch a blog that would celebrate both the diversity of the world around us and our inherent interconnectedness. We would choose one location or point in time (bus stop, library, evening) and spend an hour there, resulting in a blog filled with immersion and personal essays that would become Proximity.
At the time, Maggie lived in South Africa and worked as a narrative journalist. Carrie had recently moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Madison, Wisconsin, where she freelanced her way through a new city, and I lived in Atlanta and had mostly surrendered my writing life and aspirations to the beguiling work of motherhood.
Each of us sought connection in our own way.
For me, Proximity became a beautiful little lifeline; it was not only an opportunity to reflect and write at a time in my life when reflection, much less writing, was at a minimum, but it also gave me a window to the world during what was an otherwise isolating season of life. When all three of our essays posted, it felt like magic. Each was unique to the author’s perspective, narrative voice and experience, but underlined a sort of universal understanding of and appreciation for one another. The project lasted a year.
Then, in the summer of 2013, Maggie called me again. She wanted to know what I thought about reviving Proximity, but this time as an online literary magazine. Again, each issue would be theme-based. We would choose nine submissions – including flash, mid-range, long form and multi-media – and publish once a quarter. To help elevate this new take on an old idea and build a digital publication that would stand the test of time, we invited Traci Mcnamara to join our cross-country editorial team. Together we span rural and urban, southern and northern, Appalachian college town and mountainous ski village.
And so, Proximity was re-born, but this time with greater reach and more varied perspectives. We launched our first quarterly collection of true stories in January with the theme Morning, and in it you’ll find some real gems – offering readers a layered, unqualified rendering of mornings spent in introspection, in observation, and at work. And, just as we sought years ago, we found a single theme through which to highlight our great connections and vast differences around the world, from Antarctica and Botswana to Tennessee and Maine.
This expanded format serves to amplify what our original team started. In an age where connecting so often happens with the help of technology, the stories we publish offer serious grounding in a place or time that may be very different from our own. It is also somehow relatable, and in being relatable serves to foster greater understanding and connectedness in a world that sometimes seems as small as the little devices stuck to our palms.
As a former contributor to Brevity, I would like to invite you, readers and writers of true stories, to submit to Proximity’s upcoming issues (themed: Crossroads, Stuff, Wilderness). For guidelines, or to read our stellar writers’ work in Issue #1, visit www.proximitymagazine.org.
March 11, 2014 § 4 Comments
The number of journals, both online and in print, that are willing to consider flash nonfiction grows each year. Some of these venues have strict format, word count, or topic guidelines, while others are willing to consider a wide variety of prose configurations.
What follows are some notes on methods and strategies that have informed my own research into finding markets for my own flash nonfiction.
- Ask around. For two years in a row, I scoured the book fair at AWP for journals willing to consider short, truthy prose. If an editor or representative of a journal said they’d be willing to consider something under 1,000 words, I asked if they had any examples in print—and when they did, I bought them.
- Use the Google-force. If you don’t have the luxury of getting to AWP, or can’t bear to wait for next year, you can search free resources such as Poets & Writers and search engines. If I can’t find “flash nonfiction,” I look for the magic words, “short prose.” Failing that, I search for a combination of “prose poetry,” “hybrid or experiemental,” and “narrative or lyric nonfiction”—if a journal is willing to consider all three of those categories, they will likely consider flash nonfiction.
- Practice the form in your cover letter. My cover letter is almost always an exercise in brevity. This is not advice specific to short form publication, but can be used for any and all journal submissions when you don’t already have a personal relationship with the editor. Whatever you do, don’t write a letter that is longer than your submission.
SAMPLE COVER LETTER:
Dear Ms. Brown / nonfiction editor,
Thank you for considering the attached flash prose, “My Tiniest Essay,” for publication in The Pushcart Machine Review. The word count is approximately 250, and this is a simultaneous submission.
Be brief, professional, and use the third person. Italicize journal names if the format will allow it.
Click here for a list of Flash Nonfiction Markets assembled by Chelsea Biondolillo
March 10, 2014 § 3 Comments
I’m in an end-of-AWP-day-one cranky stupor when journalist, author, and magazine editor Autumn Stephens’ humor lifts me up. I shift my sore hips back into the chain-locked chair, lean forward, and soak up her soft-spoken words.
“Americans tell 1.6 lies a day,” she tells us, citing a 2010 study. She leans into the microphone and tosses out a few examples.
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
We have an open marriage.
There are weapons of mass destruction.”
I’m pretty honest, but it makes me think. I tell that first lie to my four-year-old who demands the book Santa’s Toy Shop at bedtime at least four times a week. He says he’s going to be extra good this year so that Santa will stop at his house with a model train and tunnel. It’s only March, and if he wants to self-govern based on that, fine with me. In early adulthood I once fell for something along the lines of the second. Big mistake. And the third, we’re still feeling the reverberations of that lie the world over.
Stephens throws out a different example, one from her early magazine days. She was asked to write about interior design, which she knew nothing about, and took a personal approach, letting the story speak through her experience as a novice. She began with something along the lines of, “As I walked through the gates I was transported to the South Seas….” Her editor returned the piece with the “I’s” crossed out and replaced by, “a visitor.” It reminded her of something her mother had told her years before. “She said I could expect a monthly visitor.” When she saw the changes in the article, she had the same thought as after her mother’s warning. “What visitor?”
Old-time journalist will tell you that they learned to never use the vertical pronoun, that slender sneaky little “I.” But these days, when it’s not strict reportage, there’s a more nuanced view of the “I.”
Using the first person, coming out and saying who we are, is one way we can infuse our non-fiction writing with integrity. There’s no need for the visitor artifice. First person is a gateway into a story because it invites the reader in, illuminates the universal through our experiences. It’s not for every piece, but let’s look at those beginning lies as a case study.
If I were writing about how family beliefs get passed down, I could start with the Santa experiences with my son. I could ask my Jewish friends from childhood, whom I later learned helped their parents carry their presents from the basement closet to their tree, why they never told me the truth. Maybe I’d find a bigger story about belief and belonging.
If I wanted to explore the virtue of faithfulness, I could enter the story through my experience of what was supposed to be a one-night stand in my early 20’s with a man who claimed his marriage had ended. He lied, then his wife left and he became my problem. This approach could let readers look at their feelings without making them directly confront their own transgressions, whether real or fantasy.
If I wanted to write about how the things got worse for girls in Afghanistan with the US military presence, I wouldn’t need to be in it. But, if I was writing about the recall of inactive troops, I’d share my story of the letter I received on September 21, 2011 notifying me that my permanent separation from the US Air Force, which was slated for December 5th, was on hold, indefinitely.
It boils down to trusting our intuition with our writing, to asking if our experiences or interactions with the subject matter lead us to the truth, a “go big” where our presence brings the reader in and illuminates the story, world, or some aspect of our shared humanity.
Stephens asserts that whatever we write, with the exception of our grocery list, that we should, “Write with integrity, and for God’s sake don’t be boring.”
Samantha Claire Updegrave writes creative non-fiction, micro-essays, and poetry. Her work has appeared most recently in Literary Mama, Bacopa Literary Review, and hipMama. She is an MFA candidate at The Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and an assistant non-fiction editor at Soundings Review. By day she is an urban planner, and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her partner, young son, and two feuding cats.
March 10, 2014 § 2 Comments
“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.”
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/.
March 9, 2014 § 2 Comments
Zoe Zolbrod introduced the panel that included herself and four other memoirists (Jillian Lauren, Ben Tanzer, Claire Dederer, Kerry Cohen) who have written about their children. Zolbrod spoke of balancing the writer’s necessity of following a story no matter where it may lead, with responsibilities to our children. She suggested several tactics: setting up rules, taking personal responsibility for what we write, and understanding that there will be consequences for people in (and outside of) our lives.
The usefulness of self-defined boundaries was summed up by Claire Dederer, who said that grappling with undefined parameters will slow you down; creating rules that reflect your values and comfort level will give you “the freedom to write.” And then – write. “There’s always revision.”
Ben Tanzer stated that writing about his family is a selfish act. He’s had to consider, “What does it mean to be the most selfish person in the house?” One way he addresses this is to be intentional about why he’s telling a story – is he sharing the shit just to share the shit? “You have to ask, ‘What’s the point?’” Answering his own question, Tanzer said, “I want to write a love letter.”
Early in the session, Tanzer demonstrated this when he talked about how his first son, at 23 days old, began crying for 15-20 hours a day. This went on for nine weeks. He described in blunt terms the nightmarish situation he and his wife were in: sleep-deprived, terrified that one of their apartment building neighbors would call the police, and at each other’s throats. His thoughts were violent and despairing. And then their shut-in neighbor left a bag at their door. The bag contained a teddy bear, a container of soup, and a note addressed to their infant son that read, “I’ve heard you’re having a hard time, but it will get better.”
Telling the story in this way makes both parts of it meaningful. It’s not just a guy talking about how much he hated his family for a few months; and it’s not just a sympathetic neighbor. It’s the agony of parenting – and then the solace.
Many of the panelists said though people focus on their children, these stories are chronicles of their parenting experience. Kerry Cohen said of her memoir on raising her autistic son, “The book isn’t really about Ezra; it was really about me.”
Jillian Lauren commented that people who say things like, “Children should have no digital presence!” probably don’t feel called to write about their children; but some writers do feel called to write about their children. As advocates, or to connect and learn with other parents, or even – as Dederer emphasized midway through the session – to create an incredible work of art. (Dederer noted that women are often expected to put aside their works of creation out of concern for others’ feelings.)
Questions from the audience centered on what will the PTA moms, neighbors, or grandparents think, and will the children suffer? Kerry Cohen quoted Joan Didion: “I’m not afraid to be hated. I’m not afraid to be loved.” Cohen also said she didn’t have rules about what she will or won’t write in a memoir. “I write about the things I wished I’d had to read [when I was going through these things].”
Jillian Lauren said it’s a gift to have ones dirty laundry aired … “My parents’ generation lived with secrets, secrets, secrets – and I don’t think it served them.”
The panel agreed that despite all the judgments from strangers, and anxiety about what everyone will think, it’s probably going to be all right. You can never tell what someone’s response will be to your work, and you probably can’t help but write it anyway.
Dederer said there are two ways to offset the selfishness of a memoir, “The first is to make it really, really good; and the second is to be really honest.”
Hafidha Acuay is a Seattle-based poet and non-fiction writer.