Ten Things I Learned While Reading a Memoir I Will Not Review for Brevity

November 12, 2019 § 8 Comments

By Stacy E. Holden

1) Don’t hide the point of your work. Let your reader know what you want to do, think you are doing. Indicate in some fashion why you want these readers along for the ride.[1]

2) Don’t vent. A memoir should not be viewed as an opportunity to list everything you do not like, past and present. Anchor your writing to insights, not irritations.[2]

3) Don’t write like a curmudgeon. Invite people to spend time with you through a self-effacing attitude toward the subject of your book or its audience. In general, no one really likes to sit down with a know-it-all killjoy.

4) Don’t adopt an aerial view of life. Be humble, and acknowledge that you are not an expert on everything.[4]

5) Show empathy to all the others populating your life’s[5] story. If someone in it annoys you, you should see it as an opportunity to deepen your tale by excavating why.

6) Don’t neglect Beta Readers. Ask a variety of people to read it, especially those who are not “the same” in terms of generation, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.[6]

7) Don’t assume everyone gets the inside joke.[7] Be clever, by all means, but only if you are clear and contextualize. You do not want to separate readers from your life story.

8) Don’t reject growth. You write to view the world with fresh eyes. Think deeply, and know you will be a different person at the end of the writing process than at its start.[8]

9) Don’t assume a penis or a white cis male identity gives you a right to judge others, especially women (see #5 & #6).[9]

10) Don’t assume your reviewer—in this case, a cisgender female Gen-Xer—will be any less curmudgeonly and judgmental than you. So, for better or worse, be prepared for some readers not to embrace the writing you worked so hard to produce, edit, publish…to offer to the literary world.[10]

_________

    Footnotes

[1]

Passengers don’t get on a plane just because it is going somewhere east that may be kinda nice. I need to remember to let my own readers know they are heading to Morocco to join me on a journey of midlife transition in the first few pages. I don’t want them to wonder what is the point of this work, as if lost in the labyrinth of the Old City’s winding streets. I am tracing Edith Wharton’s 1917 journey to discover who I am as a midlife woman now past bearing children or rocking boob-shirts in bars.(go back)

[2]
The surprises of writing and writing and writing til you get it! I could rag on academia, where I work, suggesting the distance I always felt and blaming “them,” but my writing has led me instead to see how my comfort living in working-class places of Morocco stems from my own insecurities and a desire to find community among workers somewhere, since I educated myself out of conversations with family and some friends in the USA.

(go back)

[4]
Show don’t tell…excavate that day in Moulay Idriss when everyone annoyed you, even when they just offered you cookies. What led you to be fragile and sensitive and judgmental that particular day?

(go back)

[5]
Expats…I need to rethink how I describe those rich expats in Marrakesh and other Moroccan places who set up homes in poor neighborhoods of the medina.

(go back)

[6]
Aomar, an anthropologist whose Moroccan identity is wrapped up in sub-Saharan African and Tamazight culture, not Arab. Mina, a professor of history in Rabat. And Sara…the educated daughter of Aicha, friend, illiterate, who appears regularly in the ms.

(go back)

[7]
Moroccan time…do not mention “Moroccan time.”

(go back)

[8]
I thought I would write a love letter to Morocco by returning there to find the recipe for past happiness, but it turns out I am composing a Dear John letter to this country. You cannot repeat today what worked for you yesterday. Sometimes it is time to move on.

(go back)

[9]
Do I sound like a judg-y white American when I talk about Morocco? Is there a sense of using the culture of the US as a marker for how stuff—bathrooms, government administration, luncheon interactions—should work in a perfect world? If so, rethink…

(go back)

[10]
Remember, some will still condemn a white woman writing on her travels in an African country. But look deeply at your work and the images in it. Be confident in your descriptions of your engagement with the people and places in a country long considered a second home. Let the work go, and be damned with the reviewers who will or will not write about my book.

_____________________________________________________

Stacy E. Holden is an Associate Professor at Purdue and the author of The Politics of Food in Modern Morocco (University Press of Florida, 2009) and A Documentary History of Modern Iraq (University Press of Florida, 2012). Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Indiana Voice Journal and Coldnoon. She is working on a travel memoir that reflects on her myriad experiences living in Morocco, while tracing Edith Wharton’s journey to the same country 100 years ago.

Call for Submissions: Adapt This City

November 11, 2019 § 1 Comment

slagFrom Slag Glass Citya nonfiction literary journal of the urban essay arts:

Announcing a special call for submissions: Adapt This City. Nonfiction prose, photography, and hybrid works submitted for this call are accepted from November 5, 2019—February 5, 2020.

Creative nonfiction selected for publication by the 2020 editorial board will be published in the online journal and promoted broadly, as well as considered for publication in the annual miniature print edition.

Here in the Slag Glass City we want to see stories, arguments, lyrics, and reports about 21st century cities transforming, in tiny or tremendous ways. We welcome fresh takes and variations including: mosaic, montage, photographs, soundscape, drawing, image + text, video, audio, and/or hybridity. We have no length requirements and will consider prose from short-short/flash to longform.

As rising shorelines consume cities, as displacement guts neighborhoods, as immigrant families fear deportation raids, as city dwellers fight epic battles for rent control and public school teachers strike, as desert cities burn and hurricanes blow ocean cities off their foundations, how are we adapting? Can the contemporary metropolis adjust to cataclysmic change—the urgent and the everyday, the systemic and the intimate? When we do adapt, who benefits, who pays, and how is the city implicated? Can the old city adapt into the city we need now, without leaving anyone behind?

Write us a city bent on survival.

Submit all work to our special submission portal: https://tinyurl.com/SlagGlassAdaptations. (Visual artists should submit low resolution samples, or contact us to share work too large for the Submittable portal.)

Regular submissions are still open October-June. Slag Glass City considers nonfiction prose, graphic narrative, video, audio, soundscape, photography, mixed media, or any other form of essay arts. The prose cannot be previously published, including on author blogs, but visual art may appear on artist’s sites. We are unable to pay contributors, but artists retain all rights, we promote widely, and all work published stays “in-print” online.

Slag Glass City is a magazine of essay arts, textual burlesque, and post-industrial forms, edited by Barrie Jean Borich. Published at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, we are an international creative nonfiction and multidisciplinary media journal engaged with sustainability, identity, and art in urban environments. The living city is broken and blooming. How will our roof gardens grow?

If you have QUESTIONS please email this address: slagglasscity@gmail.com

Image by Carlos ZGZ

Unified Theory of Ned

November 11, 2019 § 4 Comments

nedBy Paul Haney

Ned Stuckey-French was an essayist and a scholar of the essay, a book-review editor and an anthologist. He was an author, an English professor at Florida State University, a generous reader, a connection-maker, an advocate for anyone attempting what he termed “this queer little hybrid thing,” the essay. A tallish, lanky fellow with thick glasses and a runner’s build, Ned was political, and he was personable. He was a wise-ass, he was a warm soul. He was Ned, and he was on Facebook.

“I’m on Facebook every day,” Ned confessed at AWP in 2011. The name of his talk: “My Name is Ned and I’m an Addict.” To Ned, Facebook was a meeting place abuzz with opinions and gossip and news of the day. It was a tool of democracy, a forum for hashing out political disagreements and plying rivals with logic and facts and more reasonable truths. It was a digital dynamo of discourse, a sprawling harbor of humanity, a portal for engaging the world.

Ned poured words, millions of words, onto that medium. Even when classes were in session, or when he was traveling, he posted articles supporting unions, and universal healthcare, protections for the marginalized and dispossessed. In sharing these pieces and welcoming discussion, Ned fashioned himself a champion of the left. He never backed down from his “fundamentalist, right-wing brother-in-law,” as he called him, who swooped in to decry liberal idiocy and hypocrisy. He didn’t back down from that brother-in-law’s friends, either, tagged and recruited to the debate. Back and forth, paragraph after paragraph. “I enjoy butting heads with them,” Ned said. “It’s a way to be in touch with a group of people I might not otherwise be in touch with.” Hard-line conservatives, that is. Staunch Republicans.

On-lookers didn’t know who these people were–Ned himself hardly knew. They were Facebook addicts as well. Some brave progressives jumped into the fray and Ned engaged them, too, pleading for humanity while sizing up their logic and dishing out sources, good ones. A daunting task–to take so many stances, to mount so many arguments. To return day after day and articulate an evolving set of positions. Ned qualified his allies and refuted his opponents, always trying to figure out exactly where he stood. He was developing a platform, a worldview. He was forging a unified theory of Ned.

The threads were epic, endless, always growing, an expanding universe of discourse. The replies grew by the dozens, sometimes reaching triple digits. Trump’s political ponzi scheme. The virtues of Black Lives Matter. When did Ned teach? When did he sleep? The posts and comments, likes and shares kept coming. Politics, sure–no one was a bigger fan of Jimmy Carter, as evidenced by the family photo he’d taken with the former president and himself, his wife, and his two daughters, all beaming in the Georgia sun. But every new track & field record, the latest amazing golf shot, scores of great new essays. His voice was eager as he cheered on his students and colleagues writing their own lives. “Onward!” he cried, and “Go get ‘em!”

“We are in the age of Facebook,” Ned said in 2011. “The toothpaste is out of the tube.” Even then, Ned admitted the platform was a timesuck that played on our pettiest instincts. But he also marveled at the site’s ability to memorialize those who pass away. What would he say about the outpouring on his own wall since he passed? A thousand things, no doubt. Just as he did each year on his birthday, he would’ve left a thoughtful, personal, wise-cracky comment on each post. He would’ve engaged.

Over the years Ned learned alongside everyone else Facebook’s deeper dangers, the misinformation, the polarization, the true customers: the advertisers. Yet Ned was on there all the same. He was on there for the people, for the conversations. He was on there precisely because Facebook is democratic, in the worst and best senses of the word, and Ned believed in public discourse. Ned never took a break, never needed a cleanse. Ned was on there, posting and sharing and liking and loving and thinking and rebutting and becoming. Till the very end, Ned was on Facebook.
___

Paul Haney was a student of Ned Stuckey-French’s, a friend, and a golf partner. His work has appeared a few times in Ned’s book review section of Fourth Genre, as well as Slate, Boston Globe Magazine, Cincinnati Review, Essay Daily, Sweet, and elsewhere. He serves as Managing Editor of Dylan Review. Follow him @paulhaney.

The Quick Start Guide to Your Writing Life

November 8, 2019 § 6 Comments

andrew-gudgelby Andrew Gudgel

Thank you for purchasing our product, which we hope will give you many years of use and satisfaction.

  1. Power up your Writing Life by pressing the button marked “Birth” and holding it for nine months.
  2. The “Childhood” screen should now appear. Adjust the sliders for “Precocious Scribbling,” “Teenage Angst,” “Voracious Reading,” and “Feeling Different From Everyone Else” to your desired levels. Remove the orange plastic cover from the vulnerability port and discard. Press continue when done.
  3. The “Genre” screen should appear next. Select one or more of the “Poetry,” “Translation,” “Fiction,” “Nonfiction,” “Hybrid,” or “What the hell is this thing?” check boxes. Press refresh to begin download of the appropriate skill libraries. This may take some time, especially over a slow connection. The optional modules “MFA,” “Workshop,” and “Writing Book” are available for purchase separately. See our website for details. Press continue when done.
  4. The “Obstacles” screen should appear next. Adjust the sliders for “Blind Ambition,” “Petty Jealousy,” “Crippling Self-doubt” and “Selfishness.” The levels should be set as low as possible, as these functions may cause your Writing Life to overheat and result in serious injury. Press continue when done.
  5. The “Essentials” screen should appear next. Be careful not to accidentally deselect the “Professionalism,” “Gratitude,” “Engaged Member of the Writing Community,” and “Pay it Forward” check boxes. Press continue when done.
  6. The “Success” screen should appear last. Feel free to play with the slider, because you can’t actually control the level of this function. Press continue when done.

Congratulations! Your Writing Life should now be up and running. Keep it away from acids, abrasives, harsh chemicals, direct sunlight, too much alcohol or drugs. Occasional tears are a normal part of Writing Life operation and may be wiped away with a soft, dry cloth.
__
Andrew Gudgel is a freelance writer and translator living in Maryland. His fiction, nonfiction, translations and poetry have appeared in Under the SunLily Poetry Review, Southeast Missouri State University’s Proud to Be anthology, Western Michigan University’s journal Transference, and other publications. He’s a graduate of both Johns Hopkins University’s Science Writing program and the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Find him at www.andrewgudgel.com/

 

The Biggest Book Fair You’ve Never Heard Of

November 7, 2019 § 4 Comments

2.5 million.

I thought I’d misheard the number when the Consul General of the United States mentioned the attendance of the eleven-day Sharjah International Book Fair in his welcome speech at the American Authors Reception. The same number showed up on Wikipedia—I figured maybe it was inflated for PR purposes.

“Where would they all park?” asked my agent.

Then I read the program. Almost 2000 exhibitors are here—publishers, distributors, government culture agencies, bookstores. (If you’ve been to the annual AWP Conference, they have around 500 exhibitors. So multiply that overwhelm by 4.) Admission is free. There’s a Comic Station, a Cookery Corner, and a Social Media Station, a weird blue cube in which I talked to a deeply attentive audience about writing for social media. The main lobby outside was so crowd-loud I needed a handheld mic in what was functionally a closed room. Today’s Women in Publishing Summit is expected to have nearly 300 people, including yours truly.

The entire publishing industries of the Middle East and North Africa are here; two full days are devoted to international rights sales. The region includes 411 million people; it’s not a stretch to imagine six-tenths of a percent of them work in publishing or government agencies promoting their national literary tradition. Throw in India (at least 80 Indian publishers are here) and you’re selecting bookstore owners, editors and readers from another 1.3 billion people. And they don’t need to park—most of them flew here and Uber-ed to the convention center. Many of the locals have drivers.

On the exhibit floor, there were books in Arabic, English, Hindi, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. A local chain bookstore displayed new books at 40% off. A historic publisher from the UK displayed priceless engraved first editions in glass cases. Here, Borders still lives and they’ve got a booth. There are names I’ve heard: Anita Nair, Steve Harvey, Orhan Pamuk, Bernice McFadden, Amitabh Bachchan, Macmillan, Amazon, the American Library Association. Vikram Seth explained to a hall packed with schoolchildren that he’d have written more books if he stopped playing Candy Crush.

There are a lot more names I haven’t heard, Arabic, Indian and Persian authors packing the auditorium, their book-signing lines snaking through the cavernous main hall. Then again, I hadn’t heard of Sharjah until I moved to Dubai. The United Arab Emirates is actually seven independent units—I’d call them city-states if they weren’t plopped in the middle of spacious desert, but the principle is the same. Everyone’s heard of Dubai and most people know Abu Dhabi. There’s also Ras al Khaimah, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm al Quain, and Sharjah. Sharjah is next-door to Dubai, it’s 100% dry (no alcohol or rain), and it loves books.

Loves.

Books.

UNESCO named Sharjah the World Book Capital for 2019, recognizing “the best city program aimed at promoting books.” The Book Fair is under the patronage of the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi. The Sheikh (who holds doctorates in History and Political Geography) not only opened the Book Fair and hung out (or whatever one calls casual royal interaction), he welcomed the American authors at a reception at the US Consul General’s house.

Can you imagine the highest government official in your home country not only making time for the big cultural event photo op, but sticking around to enjoy the scene, then heading over to a house party to personally welcome another country’s visiting authors? (Maybe if you’re Icelandic.)

This gives me hope in the world. That even in an absolute monarchy, in a region of the world where human rights as we conceive them in the West are not a particularly high priority, even in a place where a lot of women write books because it’s a socially acceptable activity when you live with your parents until you get married and something’s gotta fill that time, there is a love of literature so profound that high society, top officials, royalty, Nobel laureates and movie stars have all showed up to celebrate it.

It also gives me hope that keynote speaker Steve Harvey earned a negative review for his “outdated views about family and the roles of men and women” in local paper The National. Free speech is not a right in the UAE. Newspaper stories are approved, and people with power are condoning that statement. Books published locally go through a three-permit process, including submitting one’s manuscript for government approval—but plenty of books published elsewhere are distributed in the Emirates. We all know words can change the world, bring communities together and cross international borders. Honoring literature is honoring ideas, and it’s moving to watch that happen here.

_____________________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’s hosting a writing retreat (including a full manuscript read) in Dubai Feb 26-Mar 4. Two places are still open if you’d like to check it out.

 

Review of Sonja Livingston’s The Virgin of Prince Street

November 6, 2019 § 2 Comments

virgin prince streetBy Debbie Hagan

One day, the Our Lady of Grace statue, the one that had stood in Corpus Christi Church, in Rochester, New York, for practically a hundred years, had vanished. It happened during a great migration of new parishioners, coming from neighboring Mt. Carmel and Holy Redeemer churches, which had closed. They brought with them their favorite hymns, traditions, and statuary. Soon the Corpus Christi sanctuary looked like a convention of painted plaster holy figures. That’s when Our Lady—the Mary with the bluest mantle, the humblest expression, the most endearing face, which had held Livingston’s gaze since she was an altar girl—had disappeared.

But where? Livingston, a self-described obsessive, needed to know. Like Nancy Drew, she gathered facts and began tracking down the statue. In The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, the author travels to churches and salvage businesses, such as Pittsburgh’s Used Church Items, in search of her Mary. These short, engaging essays not only invite readers along on her quest, but delve into other church-related matters, such as Catholic rituals, history, and devotion.

Livingston grew up Catholic, though admits to attending sporadically, sometimes skipping for years at a time. “So, while I came eagerly to Mass, served proudly at the altar, and noticed the way that people from the neighborhood perked up at church like wilted plants given doses of water and light, I was not—by even the most generous interpretation of the word—devout,” she writes. Just speaking of God made her “shifty-eyed and spastic.”

I know the feeling. Some thirty years ago, I converted to Catholicism, shortly before I married my husband. He was Catholic, though did not expect me to become one. I’d grown up Southern Baptist, but the hell-and-brimstone preaching always left me wide-eyed and shaken. Marrying my husband presented an opportunity to become part of something that had mystified me as a teenager. I’d visited the local Catholic Church a few times with a friend. The priests’ gold embroidered robes, jewel-crusted chalices, and mysterious rituals spoken in Latin left me in awe. Just imagine my surprise looking into the dusty gold frames hanging on the walls and discovering bits of leg bone and skull fragments. I loved Easter when the priest strolled down the aisle, shaking the thurible, raising clouds of incense, sending sweet, musky prayers over the congregants. The pipe organ’s dark bellows rattled my breast bone, leaving me breathless and dazed. Any effort to put these feelings into words would have left me blushing and tongue-tied—like trying to explain a dream.

Perhaps devout Jews have it right, not speaking God’s name. In her essay “Absolute Mystery,” Livingston writes, “Theologian Karl Rahner preferred Absolute Mystery to the word God, saying: God’s silence, the eerie stillness, is filled by the Word without words, by Him who is above all names.”

After becoming Catholic, I’d sit in the pew under St. Lucy’s stained-glass portrait, where the window’s cool, watery purples and Lucy’s gentle, rose-blushed gaze fell upon me. I can’t remember how many Sundays I sat there before I noticed dear Lucy had a thorn sticking out of her eye. I’d learn she had been martyred—her eyes gouged out. She was the saint to turn to for eye problems, and when I needed help, we talked.

In Montreal, in St. Joseph’s Oratory, a heart floats in a formaldehyde flask. It once beat in the chest of Brother André Bessette, who used his miracle oils to heal the sick. Upon his death, the church honored his good heart by putting it on display. However, in 1973, thieves stole it and held for a $50,000 ransom. In “The Heart Is a First-Class Relic,” Livingston tells how the  church refused to barter for the beloved heart, describing it as priceless. A year-and-a-half later, a tipster led authorities to a basement apartment, and there, inside a footlocker, they found the flask, still with the heart. A little formaldehyde had leaked out, yet the heart remained in good condition.

Perhaps the most somber essay is “Miracle of the Eyes,” in which Livingston recounts her trip to Ireland to visit the Ballinspittle grotto. On a cold, drizzly night, on January 31, 1984, a fifteen-year-old girl, wearing her Catholic school uniform, gave birth in the grotto, next to the Our Lady statue. “Ann Lovett trudged through winter fields, pain mounting with every step,” Livingston writes. “Perhaps, she thought as she approached the church—letting herself believe in the beautiful way only the most desperate do—perhaps Our Lady will help.” No one came, and Lovett and her infant son died in the cold on the grounds of the Catholic Church—the institution that made sure birth control and abortion remained inaccessible.

This essay is exceptionally grim. In general, Livingston’s essays are light-hearted, witty, told in a comforting, sisterly voice, someone you can trust, someone who speaks her mind, someone who explores those things lost and found.
___

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches creative writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.

 

 

 

 

Moments Not Things

November 5, 2019 § 16 Comments

photo by Sara Tasker @me_and_orla

I’m taking an Instagram course. Which is the sort of ridiculous thing that exists these days—you paid real money to learn about Instagram? From who, some kind of Instagram guru? Wait, don’t you already teach about Instagram?

Yes, yes, and yes.

I’ve argued before that writers don’t need ten thousand followers for our literary community and/or platform; we need about a thousand engaged followers. People who actually want to have a conversation with us, and for whom Instagram is a free and convenient way to do that. My captions aspire to mini-essay status, and I do, in fact, have conversations with other writers. People I admire; people who (I hope) admire me right back. I’d like to have more conversations (please join me!), and I’m missing a key ingredient: better photos.

While I love and advocate for words on Instagram, there’s no escaping that it’s still primarily a visual medium. Many of the people I interact with I’ve already met in real life, at a writing conference or an event. If I want strangers to slow their scroll and interact, I need photos that pop, that say “there’s more to find out here.”

The course teacher’s photos are amazing. The visual impact is such that scrollers become readers, pausing to look at Sara Tasker’s posts and read her words, click over to her blog, maybe buy her book. One key concept she teaches is “Moments not things.” For example, a plate of beautiful cupcakes, arranged just so, pink frosting sculpted into dainty swirls. It’s a pretty picture, but it’s just a picture. Add a child’s hand reaching into the frame, one finger sneaking some icing, and now it’s a moment, the first sentence of a story, with the rest told in the caption.

This applies to people, too. What’s more precious: The photo of a kid posed stiffly in front of a photo backdrop? Or the hurried shot of “First day of school but she’s late for the bus so I’ve got her running and waving while I thrust the 7TH GRADE sign into the frame”? One is a moment. One is a thing.

As writers, this is the difference between telling and showing:

We were so poor we qualified for public assistance and had to buy the cheapest groceries. My mom was ashamed and tried to hide our broke and hungry state.

It’s not bad, but it’s still telling. An exercise I learned from Andre Dubus III was to take a series of abstract concepts and express them through a concrete situation or action.

Poverty:

We made dollar-store macaroni and cheese with water instead of milk.

We went through Justice, Fatherly Love, Motherly Love, Betrayal, Jealousy, Sexual Deception, Shame, Pride, Loyalty and a few more. I took the workshop two years in a row, and both times, every writer in the room had vivid, concrete experiences that could be turned into useful elements of their memoir or novel. Sometimes, pinpointing the moment led to an even larger theme:

My mom resewed her underwear for us…but we weren’t poor, it was that dad controlled the money and wouldn’t let her have it.

As I take the lessons of the course into both my writing and my photography, I’m looking at the world differently. The huge, shiny food court I see every day? Sure it’s part of my world, very “Dubai,” and different from many people’s experience, but it’s a thing. The janitor resting, head down on his arms on the plastic table before the mall opens, because he’s dropped off by a van that gets here too early? That’s a moment. If I do the research, maybe it’s also a story.

Whether you’re writing only in words, or including photos in your work, your Instagram, or your personal album, find what’s outside the frame that belongs in the story. Find the meaning in the thing. Find the moment.

____________________________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She also leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats: coming up, Dubai (Feb26-Mar4) and Costa Rica (May11-18) with Dinty W. Moore.

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