March 3, 2015 § 1 Comment
We are extending the deadline to submit student scholarship applications for the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference, which is scheduled for May 29-31 on the Ashland University main campus. The new deadline is March 15, 2015
River Teeth is offering four scholarships to students currently enrolled in writing programs (graduate or undergraduate). All registration fees will be waived for the recipients of the scholarships. Other expenses (travel, room, board) are the responsibility of the scholarship recipient.
This year’s conference will feature Cheryl Strayed, author of the New York Times bestsellers, Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things; and Jerald Walker, author of Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, recipient of the 2011 PEN New England Award and the L.L. Winship Award for Nonfiction. In addition to these featured guest speakers, the weekend conference will also include seminars, panels, book signings, manuscript consultations, and discussion with other established and emerging writers.
More information on the Conference and scholarship competition can be found here: http://www.riverteethjournal.com/blog/2015/03/03/scholarship-deadline-extended-to-march-15
March 3, 2015 § 3 Comments
A guest post by V. Hansmann:
Vladimir Nabokov suggests a writer’s imagination transforms him into a storyteller, a teacher, or an enchanter and the best practitioners embody all three. One element the three roles share is in the speaking. Reading in front of people can feel onerous at best and potentially fatal at worst. Performance anxiety is the iceberg tip.
At every MFA residency I claimed my four minutes at the Student Readings and we held some impromptu readings in the common rooms of the dorms, but nothing prepared me for the concentrated attention aimed at me by my peers.
I kinda liked it. It didn’t feel so bad to have an audience, to display the ideas I had painstakingly assembled. To communicate directly. When could I do it again? What if I took this feeling on the road? How about a reading series in my hometown, New York City? In Greenwich Village? In a smoky basement bar?
I graduated in June of 2011 and in late August, I hosted the first of what has become a monthly series at the Cornelia Street Café. There are no cigarettes. I miss that, because the basement room at Cornelia Street truly is a throwback to the days when the Village was the Village.
I started the reading series with no experience, but I’m a middle-aged guy with the commensurate amount of common sense. Here are some points you would be well served to consider if you wish to start your own reading series.
This is not a step-by-step guide.
- Suss out the spoken word scene in your neighborhood, town, or city
- Investigate promising venues – online, in person, word-of-mouth
- Address these questions –
1) Where would you draw your readers from?
2) How much are you willing to put into the effort? Time, Money, Goodwill
3) What frequency? Monthly, bimonthly, quarterly, random
4) Format – How much time will the venue give you? How much is useable? For example, if you have a two-hour slot, only ninety minutes of that may be useable, between waiting for stragglers and allowing time for the next event to load in. How many readers? For example: Featured Reader & three readers with unequal time, or four / five readers with the same allotment?
5) Perhaps most important – Am I temperamentally suited to this?
- If you’re an MFA grad and the answer to #1 is your alma mater, then/li>
1) Consider students, graduates, faculty, staff, and friends as potential readers
2) Plot out a Zone your readers can get to and fro easily (without an overnight)
3) Ask the program for a list of students/graduates within that radius
- Useful Zone Lists for curating purposes
-MFA Master List: You build this from the list the program sends and student directories
-MFA Genre List & MFA Class List: You build these from the first list
-Introduce yourself and the project to your MFA Master List
-Send regular upcoming reading announcements to this list
-Email blast – MFAs in Zone, un-MFA writers in Zone
-FaceBook – make a page
-Poets &Writers online Calendar
-Personal or series website
-Connect with the powers that be at the MFA program
-Pursue any free event listing anywhere
-Include a reference to reading series in your bio
- The Reading Itself
-Start time – ten minutes after posted start
-Printed program and/or oral intros – your choice
-Break after the first three readers – length up to host
-After-party – your choice
-Death by conviviality
-Good for book signing
Exemplum Gratis –
This month’s reading had been lined up for ages. Then, not that long ago, a fellow grad wrote me, saying in effect – I’m flying in and would love read on the 23rd of February. What could I say but ‘yes’? Now, I would have to shoehorn an additional fifteen minutes into the format. Ack. I fretted. Experience has taught me that evenings tend to run short and not long. So, based on that assessment, I procrastinated. One solution might be to fix – “Hey, listen, everybody needs to lose five minutes from the piece they’ll be reading.” Another might be to simply wait – And this morning, one of the other readers withdrew, restoring equilibrium to the evening.
The lesson, I guess, is to trust in the cosmos. Husbanding my equanimity has been my greatest resource in this cat-herding enterprise.
V. Hansmann was raised in suburban New Jersey; growing up to be neurotic, alcoholic, homosexual, and old. His publishing credits consist of an anecdote in the The New York Times, essays in The Common online, BLOOM, Post Road, and Best Travel Writing, Vol. 10, as well as poems in Structo and Subtropics.
March 2, 2015 § 14 Comments
Earlier this week, XOJane published K.T. Bradford’s “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year.” The article is illustrated by a photo of the author holding up Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with the “no” sign over the cover. The author wags a finger at the reader and gives us what I think of as a don’t you do it! face. In the article, Bradford says that she was inspired by Sunili Govinnage’s “I read only non-white authors for 12 months. What I learned surprised me,” which was itself inspired by Lilit Marcus’ article “Why I Only Read Books by Women in 2013.” But there is a key difference between the reading choices made by Govinnage and Marcus to immerse themselves in the voices of women and people of color, and Bradford’s choice to read everyone but white, straight, cis men.
I applaud readers who take their reading so seriously that they undertake experiments like those of Marcus and Govinnage. I believe that we all should make an effort to read works by authors we have to go searching for, because their voices are under-represented by the publishing industry. I find the alchemy of combining like voices—as Govinnage and Marcus did—lovely and meaningful. I really do. But K.T. Bradford’s experiment—and her urging the rest of us to repeat it for ourselves—is not about reading a particular kind of author for an extended period; it’s about excluding the voices of one kind of author instead. It’s an experiment that says, “I am devaluing the voices of white, straight, cis male authors” rather than “I am valuing the voices of women authors and authors of color.”
In truth, I don’t actually think that Bradford is advocating that we actually stop reading white, straight, cis male authors. She writes in the article:
The “Reading Only X Writers For A Year” a challenge is one every person who loves to read (and who loves to write) should take. You could, like Lilit Marcus, read only books by women or, like Sunili Govinnage, read only books by people of color. Or you could choose a different axis to focus on: books by trans men and women, books by people from outside the U.S. or in translation, books by people with disabilities.
These sort of focused readings can be transformative, and like Bradford, I encourage readers to consider engaging in them, if not for a year, then for a while, and if not to the exclusion of other books, then at least by making a conscious effort to read mostly works by “X writers.” But the recommendation she makes in the article is very different from the recommendation made in the headline. There is something horrible, really, about saying “I’m spending a year not reading works by X writers.” Something that is very different from saying “I’m spending a year only reading works by X writers.”
I’m thinking about this, also, in the context of our upcoming special issue on gender. We’ve already received a few queries from people asking if we are open to work that explores cis, straight experiences, and I’m a little sad that anyone felt they had to ask. Any exploration of gender that excludes the experiences of anyone is, by its very nature, already limiting and policing the ways in which we conceive of gender expression.
Kate Bornstein, the anchor author for the issue, has written,
Instead of saying that all gender is this or all gender is that, let’s recognize that the word gender has scores of meaning built into it. It’s an amalgamation of bodies, identities, and life experiences, subconscious urges, sensations, and behaviors, some of which develop organically, and others which are shaped by language and culture. Instead of saying that gender is any one single thing, let’s start describing it as a holistic experience.
And no conversation about gender that specifically targets one group for exclusion can ever hope to engage with the wonderful, personal, sometimes terrifying ways in which we experience ourselves as gendered beings.
We encourage all writers to think about their experiences of gender, and to send us their brief essays exploring those experiences. We welcome the full diversity of voices. We are committed to publishing work that shows the multiplicity of gendered experience, work that takes us away from the binary and recognizes instead the infinite variety of how we understand ourselves to be. And, we hope, our readers will engage with all the essays in the issue, not just those by “X Writers.”
Sarah Einstein is author of the forthcoming Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), 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 currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing with a secondary specialty in Rhetoric and Composition at Ohio University.
February 27, 2015 § 2 Comments
By Erin Morgan Gilbert
Where I grew up, green obscured all evidence of human endeavor, softening corners and blotting out other colors. Moss devoured cars and mattresses abandoned in the woods, blanketed roofs, and carpeted the roads. Bodies of water reflected a profound verdancy in their very names: Lake Wilderness, Cedar River, Green River. Even my mother’s eyes were green. Once, she said her favorite color was green too, and I felt disappointed, as if she had admitted to me a secret fatalism, a willingness to disappear into the background. I thought that by allowing the color surrounding us to colonize her personal preferences she was signaling her acceptance of the strict parameters—the poverty and ignorance—that constrained our lives.
Years later, after she died, I found a tiny emerald ring she used to wear, but the gem had cracked. For me, green became associated with loss, but it wasn’t until I read Marie NDiaye’s surreal memoir, Self Portrait in Green, that I understood what the recurrence of the color in my memories meant: my mother was a woman in green.
The first woman in green appears beneath a banana tree in the overgrown garden of a house NDiaye passes on the way to her children’s school. NDiaye watches the woman, and the woman watches her, but when she asks her children about the mysterious figure under the tree, she discovers they can’t see her. Who is this woman, visible only to the author?
Just as electrical currents can affect a magnetic field, the women in green are preceded by disturbances in NDiaye’s version of reality. The subject of most memoirs is the author’s relationship with people and events located in objective reality. NDiaye’s catalogue of women in green is different: she submerges objective details in her own subjective reality, where reality is shaped by authorial force. By acknowledging this process, and inviting the reader into complicity, she writes at the frontier of creative nonfiction.
Several iterations of these women in green crowd around NDiaye, outlining the negative space she writes from, so that she is not defined so much by what she does or doesn’t do, but instead by how she recognizes, imagines, and loses her green women. They are “untouchable, disappointing, infinitely mutable, very cold, able, by force of will, to become very beautiful, and able, too, not to want to.”
When she decides to park in front of the first green woman’s house, the woman is poised on a second floor balcony, ready to leap. The second is so mutable that she transforms herself from a childhood friend into an unhappy stepmother. She recognizes the third woman in green from another friend’s descriptions of someone’s wife, and stops herself from asking what color the wife wears, wondering if her friend had mentioned green, but realizing that by that point she can identify a woman in green regardless of what color the woman wears.
NDiaye’s reality is infectious, as hungry as the green I knew as a child. In a passage that reverberated through my own subjective reality, she introduces the fourth woman in green. “How strange it is,” she writes, “[that] your own mother, after you’ve butted heads with her on all manner of questions but most often and most violently on the inertia, the grayness, the deadly smallness of her existence, which, no doubt wrongly, you thought darkened and depersonalized your own, how strange it is that this woman you can no longer bear to know so well should suddenly metamorphose on her own into a green woman….”
The surreal atmosphere of Self-Portrait in Green began to create disturbances in my own reality, like the flooding Garonne running through the pages of the memoir or the Cedar River that once flooded my mother’s house. NDiaye’s imagination seeps into the corners of my mind, until my own memories are submerged and saturated with meaning. Green blotted out all other colors.
For some, this kind of associative logic will seem like no logic at all, and the book will not merit the words “memoir” and “self-portrait.” Yet the result is autobiographical—unsettling in its intimacy and mesmerizing in its emotional honesty. As NDiaye confesses near the end, I too needed these green women, “to remember they’re there, at once real beings and literary figures, without which, it seems to me, the harshness of existence scours skin and flesh down to the bone.”
Erin Morgan Gilbert’s essays, poems, and stories appear in publications such as AGNI, Bitch Magazine, and the Ilanot Review. She is an assistant editor at Asymptote, a composition instructor at Green River Community College, and a creative writing teacher at Hugo House in Seattle. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, she grew up memorizing birdsongs, eating berries, and learning the scientific names of evergreen trees in the forest.
February 26, 2015 § 4 Comments
Paul Zakrzewski interviews Kerry Cohen:
For memoirists, no challenge feels quite as fraught as publishing work that touches on the lives of others. Successful memoirists appear to write honestly about friends, family members, spouses, lovers, others—but how do they do it, exactly?
Where’s the line between my story and that of family members I may choose to write about? Do I have a right to ‘other people’s secrets’—to use Patricia Hampl’s famous formulation? When should that stop me from publishing?
These are just of the questions explored in Kerry Cohen’s terrific and thought-provoking book, The Truth of Memoir: How to Write About Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity (Writer’s Digest Books). A longtime fan of her memoir Loose Girl, I used the excuse of Kerry’s new book to ask lots of questions about how and why our writing has the potential to set other people off—and when we have the right to ignore that.
Kerry is also psychotherapist and the author of two other books Dirty Little Secrets and Seeing Ezra.
The topic of how to navigate the pitfalls of disclosure in publishing memoirs has been covered before. There’s not only Patricia Hampl’s excellent essay, but also resources like Sari Botton’s “Writers Braver Than Me” interview series at The Rumpus, or Slate’s Memoir Week roundup. Why a book-length treatment?
Because it continued to be the number one question for most of the people who came to see me read or for the people I taught. It was the thing they were most curious about, surely because they were most curious about it for themselves.
You named a couple of works, but they aren’t as accessible as needed. What I wanted to do is what so many people would love to have the opportunity to do, which is to sit in a room and listen to a whole bunch of memoirists answer that question as they did.
There’s such a range of responses in your book—everything from those by authors like Alison Bechdel, who acknowledges that “there’s something inherently hostile” in writing about others, to Sue William Silverman, who says it isn’t the task of the memoirist to worry about protecting others. “I firmly believe in my right to tell my own narrative, which is exactly what I did,” writes Silverman.
Yeah, it’s quite a range.
I didn’t know what to expect when I started. Part of why I wrote this is because I didn’t know the answer to the question I posed in my introduction: is the art more important than the feelings of people I care about?
I’ve always felt like, well, yes it is, because the art is not for me. It’s not some narcissistic act. It’s about being human, about all of us connecting as humans and feeling seen. Memoir does such a positive thing for its reader, so it did feel more important. Also, I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. I think that’s the main thing I got out of doing this book. If you’re not trying to hurt anyone – and you work your best to not hurt anyone, but to also tell your truth – then that’s really the answer.
What rules do you think memoirists should follow in terms of showing their work? Should you show your memoir to people involved in manuscript form? Wait for galleys or an advanced reader’s copy?
One of the things I learned in writing the book is that there are no hard and fast rules. I do think there’s a basic rule in this case, which is that it’s really not a good idea to show anybody that you’re writing about in the book until it’s done. At least done in draft form.
I mean, memoir is a story of your memories, not the other person’s. So it’s important to get it down the way you remember it. Then, if you decide to share it with people who had a different experience, then they can argue or grapple with how they’re portrayed. Or maybe make a few changes.
In my case, it’s a little different. Not to sound conceited, but I’m an experienced memoirist, so I really feel solid when I’m writing. (That said, every memoir is a completely new challenge, especially around form. But that’s a whole separate issue).
Here’s a case where I broke my own rule. My husband is a writer, so I share a lot of my work with him the way I would in a writer’s group. We share writing a lot as we’re working. In my current memoir I did share a chapter about him that’s potentially incriminating, and he told me that he didn’t like it. It made him feel really awkward that other people would be reading about this thing. Also, my agent told me the section had too much about our relationship and not enough about what the memoir’s about.
In the end, I took out almost all of that material, and it’s better because of that. Now it’s much more about me in relationship to the thing I’m writing about.
I want to ask you a bit about the format of your book. You’ve interspersed your own reflections with many, many quotes and over 20 stand-alone short essays by other writers on their experiences. There are even assignments/questions you give out. How did you arrive at this format?
Well, like any book one writes, or any creative process, I learned along the way. I sold it on proposal. All I had at that point were chapters based on the different types of people one might write about (i.e. “Writing about Family” or “Writing about Children”) and that I was going to interview as many memoirists as I could.
I didn’t know that I was going to have a chapter on ‘what memoir is’ (“Are You Ready to Write a Memoir?”). That didn’t really work in the original chapter, and then I realized it should be expanded upon because it’s a really important question when writing about other people.
Some of it was that I had some back and forth with my editor at Writer’s Digest. Some of it we just brainstormed together. I came up with this idea of having other memoirists write actual essays. My hope had been that the book wouldn’t all be in my voice by having various interviews. Then I thought, what if we have a whole bunch of specific stories? That’s how I came up with the idea for the essays. Same thing with the exercises.
I liked those writing exercises! Have you heard back from anyone else who’s tried them?
I used the book in one of my MFA classes at The Red Earth Low Residency program in Oklahoma City. It was amazing what came of it. I had everyone do the first exercise in the entire book. (See Below). Then I gave them a second exercise, which was to find the chapter in the book that spoke to the kind of memoir they’re writing and pick an exercise from that chapter.
The most meaningful example—I don’t want to say too much because it was private and [this student] may write a book about it. But this one student picked an exercise from the “Writing About Spouses, Friends, and Exes” chapter.
He wrote a scene about a woman who he had been in love with 17 years earlier and who had died of leukemia. He was in love with her while she was dying. After she died he met his wife and got married. He wrote about the first time they had sex—actually just the part where they got back to his apartment and they both knew what was going to happen. She tells him, “We don’t need birth control because the chemo kills everything.” It was incredible—so good. I mean, everyone was crying. He wound up with this amazing scene.
# # #
Kerry Cohen Exercises
- Why do you want to write a memoir? Include your personal, interpersonal, and any larger societal motivations for your writing.
- Write down your top concerns about your memoir. What are you fears? How might you and others benefit from your memoir?
- Make a list of memories and events that you think are vital to your story. What makes each of these memories and events important to you and your narrative?
- What aspects of your story do you think would resonate with others? Is there a larger social dialogue or universal experience that your memoir would be a part of?
—from Chapter 1, The Truth of Memoir: How to Write About Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity. Copyright © 2014 by Kerry Cohen.
Paul Zakrzewski is a writer and teacher based in Santa Barbara, CA. He recently completed his MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out more at www.pzak.info.
February 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore had the great good fortune to be guest faculty at the 10th Annual San Miguel Writers’ Conference & Literary Festival down in Mexico earlier this month, and to host a spoken word evening that included winners of The San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest. The nonfiction winner was Diana Spechler, which reminded our editor of what a wonderful essay Diana wrote for our May 2014 issue, “Things She Says.”
Here’s the start, followed by a link to the full essay:
Things She Says
by May 6, 2014
about things she said
I never said that. You’re making that up. Stop making things up. Stop making things up about me.
Stop making that up: No one hates you. Everyone is jealous. Everyone falls in love with you. My gorgeous girl. Lots of men will fall in love with you. You’re my sweet girl. The men who don’t love you are gay.
about sustaining the body
Suck in your stomach. Let me see you do it. Pretty good. Me, I can’t eat food from a box. No airplane food. I’ll throw up. No red meat. They served a ham and I thought I would die. I’m addicted to that Biggest Loser low-sodium popcorn. I’m still full from last night. I always get on the scale. Every morning. No matter what, I face it.
February 24, 2015 § 30 Comments
It’s easy to read a memoir or essay and feel as though we know the author, even though all we really know is what the writer shared with us on the page. This false sense of familiarity is one thing when we read published work by authors we may never meet. But in a creative nonfiction workshop, this faux intimacy becomes a slippery slope.
We all know that writing workshop can be an emotionally charged environment to begin with. Add in stories of personal trauma, and you’ve got a veritable Slip‘N Slide of intense moments and awkward interactions just waiting for you to lose your footing.
How can you keep your balance and avoid any more uncomfortable moments than necessary?
Make this your mantra:
Writing workshop is not group therapy.
(Say it with me.)
(And if it helps, you can sing it to the beat of MC Lars’ “Hot Topic is Not Punk Rock.”)
Don’t let a writing workshop turn into something it’s not meant to be. Here are some tips on how to stay grounded.
1) No problem solving—unless it relates to writing. Remember that you are in workshop to discuss the craft of writing and the world on the page. You aren’t there to coach a writer on how to heal from a traumatic childhood, a dance with addiction, or a spiritual crisis. You are not in workshop to help anyone slay their personal demons, unless those demons deal with writing better scenes, understanding narrative arc, or improving sentence rhythm.
2) Kindness is good. Empathy is dangerous. Pity is bad. I get it: You are a decent human being. You care about other people. By all means, be kind. After all, you are talking about someone’s real life, so don’t be crass or insensitive about his or her experiences. But don’t go overboard. Empathy might sound like a good trait, but it’s dangerous in a workshop. It can tempt you to identify too much with the narrator and her experiences, which can derail a workshop discussion and send it skidding out of control, devolving into a well-intentioned (but ultimately unhelpful) chorus of “me too.” A few steps beyond empathy is sympathy, and beyond that is the minefield of pity. Don’t go there. The events on the page may be uncomfortable or even horrific, but workshop is not the place for sentiments such as “You poor thing” or “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
3) Question the right things. When dealing with creative nonfiction, you can question the author’s craft choices, but not her life choices. Feel free to point out muddy writing, confusing inconsistencies, clichés, awkward passages, and boring descriptions. Go ahead and question anything that doesn’t feel believable on the page, but limit your comments about believability to the work itself. People do weird and unbelievable things in real life all the time. Your only concern is how those actions are presented in the story at hand.
4) Depersonalize the discussion. Although the narrator is a facet of the writer herself, the two are not wholly one and the same in creative nonfiction. Treat the narrator like a character. When you’re talking about the “I” of the essay, use terms such as “the narrator” or “the persona,” and use third-person pronouns. Try not to say things like, “The pacing is too slow in the scene where your mother leaves you.” Instead, say, “The pacing is too slow in the scene where the mother leaves the narrator.” This might feel strange and contrived at first, but you’d never conflate a fictional protagonist with the writer of a short story or novel, even if you suspect (or know) that the story is drawn from the writer’s own life. Depersonalizing the language helps to keep the discussion focused on the craft.
5) No comments about bravery, please. If someone chooses to write about a personal event and share it in a workshop, she doesn’t need you to tell her how brave she is—either for surviving the event or for sharing the story. You’re not in workshop to comment on the writer’s courage; you’re there to give feedback on her work. As a creative nonfiction writer, I never feel more squeamish or vulnerable as when someone encounters my work and tells me how “brave” I am. I don’t write to be brave. I write to create art. I’d much rather hear: “I’ve never thought about it that way, and you wrote it magnificently!”
6) What happens in workshop…(say it with me)…stays in workshop. Don’t overstep personal boundaries outside of workshop. Unless you are already friends with someone or she initiates the conversation, don’t assume that you and the writer you just workshopped are now BFFs who can talk about her dark and twisty past. It’s creepy to assume this kind of familiarity.
7) If you’re the workshop facilitator, set the ground rules and stay focused. As the workshop leader, it’s your job to set the tone and direction of the workshop. People will be people, of course, and even the most conscientious participant may veer off into therapy territory. If this happens, gently but firmly course-correct your ship. Be a captain, not a therapist.
The act of writing may be a form of therapy. And a bad workshop might make you feel like you need therapy. But remember: You gotta keep ‘em separated.
Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan writes, edits, and teaches from southwestern Pennsylvania. She is writing a book about losing her religion. She is not currently in therapy. Visit her online in The Word Cellar. She tweets @thewordcellar.