May 25, 2016 § 13 Comments
By Cindy Bradley
In choosing my MFA program, I didn’t have to look far. Living in California’s Central Valley, completing my BA in English Literature at Fresno State University, not wanting to leave my kids and new granddaughter, left applying to Fresno State’s MFA in Creative Writing–Creative Nonfiction as an easy choice.
I had hoped for a sense of community in my MFA program, and at Fresno State, that’s what I found. I’ve had the opportunity to work with and be mentored by some of the top nonfiction professors in the country, to learn alongside my fellow student editorial assistants on The Normal School, and to work on the annual Levine Prize for Poetry, where the late Phil Levine’s presence remains tangible. Teaching a nonfiction workshop for a group of high school students at the yearly Young Writers Conference proved an unexpected delight.
Who else but those who travel with you truly understands the journey you’re on? Kindred spirits, my peers and I come from different backgrounds, yet we’re all here for the same reason: to become better writers. Decades separate me chronologically with most of my classmates, but that doesn’t seem to matter. We learn and grow from each other. Our destinations may be different – some will continue writing and do quite well, others will never write again and be quite okay with that, some will teach, others will publish, all will answer their inner calling which refuses to be ignored – but for the three years we navigate the program, our paths crossing for a year, or two, or the special bond birthed from sharing all three, we’re all in the proverbial same boat. Through workshop we discover each other’s strengths and flaws, respect each other’s needs to both confess and safeguard our private lives in what we dare to tell, we answer the risky “what’s at stake” question first with trepidation, and then with courage as we become more confident in our voices semester after semester.
The personal is impossible to disentangle from the academic. These MFA years have seen the loss of my brother-in-law and brother two weeks apart late during my first semester and the suicide of a close friend’s son (and best friend to my sons) a month later. When I received my brother’s frantic call the night before Thanksgiving, I couldn’t help but think had the school not had their policy of cancelling classes the day before Thanksgiving and had I been in workshop my phone would have been silenced, as would any chance of having our last conversation. My father’s passing a year and a half later, in early May. News of my first essay accepted for publication arrived a few days later, poignant in its dealing in large part with his declining health. Many rejections would follow, along with a handful of acceptances for essays I hold particularly meaningful. Celebratory moments with the births of my second grandchild the July heading into my second year, and third and fourth grandchildren in October and February of my third and final year.
What this means is that in the shifting landscape of my life, the MFA program has been a constant, something I’ve leaned on as much as I’ve learned from. What this means is that it’s impossible to think of these eventful moments in my life without also thinking of the presence of the program, always there, always something to count on. Always reminding me of why I’m here. Reminding me that no matter what, no matter what is going on around or through me, I not only can but I have to write. I entered the program an emotional writer, one who waited for the right mood or inspiration to strike before I sat down to write and I leave the program a disciplined writer, one who doesn’t wait on anyone or anything, instead mustering my own inspiration and motivation. These years have been charged with emotion, fueled by a desire to write and become that better writer and learn as much about the craft as possible. This hasn’t just been an education. It’s been an experience. An unforgettable, life-changing experience. I want to linger here awhile. I want to absorb the emotions, capture this feeling and hold it hostage, soak in the memories and moments and process them all slowly. I’m in no hurry to leave.
Cindy Bradley recently received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in 45th Parallel, Minerva Rising, San Joaquin Review and Under the Sun. She is currently at work on her memoir titled Death, Driveways and California Dreams.
May 24, 2016 § 20 Comments
By Kathleen Siddell
Start writing again. Type and type and type. Delete and re-type. Is this any good? Submit. Hope. Lose hope. Check email.
An inbox full of rejection.
Read: articles, stories, books, the back of cereal boxes. So good! Jealousy. Wine. Crocodile tears. How to say what’s already been said? Coffee. Think and think and think. See,
an inbox full of rejection.
Try humor! This is funny! Peck the keys and chuckle. Peck and chuckle. Peck and chuckle. Submit. Not funny:
An inbox full of rejection.
Great job! But not a great fit for our prestigious site. It’s not you, it’s us. Cliches. You’re writing is filled with them. And obscure metaphors. Stop writing and we wouldn’t have to contribute to your,
inbox of rejection.
Delete all email. Game over. But. But. But. There’s a lot of fish in the sea. (Cliche! Delete.) There is a sea of inter-nets. It feels almost as vast as the,
inbox of rejection.
Look for a “real job.” Think about writing a piece about looking for a real job. Wish that deleting a draft was as satisfying as pulling paper out of a typewriter and crinkling into a ball. Wish you had a typewriter so that you wouldn’t be tempted to incessantly check your
inbox of rejection.
Check Facebook. Wonder why you ever started following so many up-and-coming writers. Writing. Publishing. Book deals. Getting paid. Getting paid? Certainly not wading through
an inbox of rejection.
Check the astrological forecast. The cosmos isn’t really against you. It’s just the new moon aligning with the Aries sun messing with the internets and rendering your email
an inbox of rejection.
Stop writing. Stop reading. Get lost in Netflix. For days. Or has it been weeks? Take a shower. Turn on your computer. Are you ready to face
an inbox of rejection?
A special kind of torture. Subjecting yourself to this madness must be some kind of disease. Google “the torture of writing.” Feel slightly justified by the results (over 2 million!). Surely you’re not the only one with
an inbox of rejection.
Write ironic piece about all the rejections. Stand by your work. Realize you still can’t really explain irony correctly. Dummy. No wonder you have,
an inbox full of rejection.
No thanks. Nope. Rejected. You wish! Please stop writing. Start a blog.
Kathleen Siddell is a freelance writer living in Singapore with her husband and two kids. Her essays have appeared on The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Mamalode among other sites. She’s working hard to add and expand this list. You can find more of her writing at her ever-transitioning blog/website or find her drowning in the Twitterverse @kathleensiddell.
May 23, 2016 § 1 Comment
By Gretchen Lida
Growing up in the spreading shadows of the Rocky Mountains, I saw Terry Tempest Williams as a literary godmother. My fingers traced over her quote on a sun-bleached sign in Mesa Verde National Park, and I sat on the floor of a crowded ballroom to hear her read. When my grandmother developed breast cancer, I found rage and hope by rereading her essay “The Clan of the One-Breasted Women.”
Williams is a teacher and an activist, but she is foremost a writer. Her prose is crisp and cutting like autumn in Acadia National Park, yet Williams never springs the rusty bear-trap of romanticism. Nature, Williams contends, isn’t exclusively hallowed ground, nor is it merely a backdrop to act in front of. Instead, nature is something to interact with. Nature is a battleground where we grapple bare-fisted with what exactly living on this planet means. Her newest book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, also comes to the fight, and this time it is in the ring of America’s public land.
The Hour of Land’s release coincides with the centennial of the National Park Service’s founding in 1916. The NPS now covers national seashores, historic battlefields, national parks, and others. The book discusses many of these sites as well as the complexities of the park system.
The Hour of Land is like the mustangs living amongst the sage on federal land; it is a hybrid, a rule breaker. It has a pedigree that is part U.S. history, part call to action, part lyric essay, and part travel writing.
The Hour of Land covers twelve places in the National Park System including heavy hitters like the Grand Tetons and Alcatraz, and some lesser-knowns, like the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa.
While the book lacks the finesse of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family, Tempest’s book on her mother and the rising water levels of the Great Salt Lake, she makes up for it through her colossal understanding of the complex relationship between Americans and natural spaces.
In the first chapter, she interviews a U.S. veteran working as a Park Service volunteer. He finds solace from old demons in the open expanses. He also represents a legacy of military men and women who have been integral to the parks since Theodore Roosevelt sent cavalry men to Yellowstone.
Later, her portrait of Gettysburg shows us a less celebrated, but often powerful arm of the NPS, the national battlefields. Williams doesn’t hide behind the history of Gettysburg, but looks at what the space means today. The voices of re-enactors, immigrants, visitors, Northerners, and Southerners all gallop in, and the Pennsylvania hillsides become a patchwork of politics, identity, and history.
Williams’ The Hour of Land also blurs the boundaries between the natural and human, conservation and land use, family and individual. The dissonance these conflicting voices create shows us that a trip to the national parks is at one moment respite and the next a magnifier on our lives outside their gates.
In fact, it was public land near Arches National Park that once again found Williams speaking out. This February, Williams and other protestors disrupted an auction in which public land was leased to oil companies for as little as two dollars an acre. The 45,000 acres up for grabs contained an estimated 1.87 million tons of carbon emissions, and Williams stood on the battleground of public land. Williams didn’t come unarmed; she came with a paddle. As bidder nineteen, she bought leases for more than 1,750 acres and set them aside for conservation.
In a country vine-covered by the ethos of nature, Williams shows Americans both beauty and destruction, but she never lets us see it passively as an inevitable binary. Our public lands are ours, she argues, and it’s up to us to keep them safe. It is because of this sentiment, the well-researched history, and the unforgettable prose, The Hour of Land will join my bookshelf’s ranks of nature writers. But before that, it will travel in my daypack on train rides or a hike, its weight beside my water bottle, my smart phone, a trail map, and a blue book for the next election.
Gretchen Lida is a Colorado native and nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. Her work has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Horse Collaborative, Mud Season Review, and others. She also rides horses and thinks about Aldo Leopold in Wisconsin.
May 20, 2016 § 2 Comments
Sandra Gail Lambert, author of the Brevity essay “Sex Objects,” talks with poet and memoirist Michele Leavitt about disability and the tension and paradox between her day-to-day “nothing to see here” strategy for dodging inappropriate praise bullets and her deep work as a memoir writer.
May 18, 2016 § 15 Comments
By Sarah Einstein
The recent New Yorker article, “What Makes An Essay American” by Vinson Cunningham—in which he discusses, and generally dismisses, John D’Agata’s recent The Making of the American Essay, the final installment of D’Agata’s three part series A New History of the Essay from Greywolf—has my part of the Facebook world debating, again, the issue of veracity in genres which call themselves “nonfiction.” What follows is a statement about where I—as a writer of nonfiction who believes in the importance of work that is genuinely nonfictional—come down on the issue. I’m grateful to the others who participated in the Facebook conversation, perhaps most particularly those who vehemently disagree with me. Because that conversation wasn’t held in a public forum, I won’t cite those essayists here, but I do want to acknowledge my debt to them for their influence on the final shape of this consideration.
D’Agata’s project is, in no small part, to trouble the readers’ belief that if a work lays claim to the generic position of “nonfiction,” that means that they can assume that the author of that work is therefore only offering what she believes to be true. In an interview at Essay Daily, he states, “I understand why a reader might get upset when a text that was sold to them as ‘nonfiction’ turns out to be partially not, because while there are lots of nonfiction writers who spend their energy insisting that a nonfiction text is defined by its verifiability, there are many other writers who disagree with that characterization. Unfortunately, those of us who disagree just don’t happen to Tweet or blog or want to wade into the fever swamps of the Internet. So I think the vast majority of readers just don’t know that the very idea of ‘nonfiction’ is itself contested within the nonfiction writing community.”
First, I’d like to quibble here and say that nobody has ever, in my vast reading on the subject, suggested that all work that claims the label of nonfiction needs to be verifiable There is quite a lot of good nonfiction that is, by the very nature of its subject matter, not verifiable. I think the bar is actually set far lower, and that for most readers and many writers of nonfictions, the understanding is that the author has told the truth to the best of her ability, and not written as true anything which she knows to be, or which is demonstrably, false. The pact that is made with the reader is not that the writer has always gotten things right, only that she has tried her best to get them right, and is offering up that best attempt.
But my real beef with D’Agata’s intellectual project isn’t that I think he overstates the level of veracity expected of nonfiction, but that he acknowledges the audience’s expectation of the genre and then make it his project to defeat it by fouling the waters with works that are not, by that definition, nonfictional. (Though less in these anthologies, where the provenance of the work itself allows the reader to judge whether or not the work is nonfictional, as in his own writing.) If he succeeds, we have lost the credulous reader, who is a necessary partner in the work of any writer who is making the sincere attempt to give as true an account as she can. If the nonfictional nonfiction, and the nonfiction which is not nonfictional, can’t be differentiated, then there ceases to be any such thing as nonfiction as such. We’ve lost the value of artifact; everything must be treated as if it might be artifice.
There are also costs to writing which lays claim to the generic position of nonfiction but which in fact includes elements that the author knows to be wholly untrue, written for an audience that does not know to expect untruths and is offering the writer the gift of their credulity.
Of all the “false” memoirs ever written, Angel at the Fence–for me, and I’m only speaking here for myself–is perhaps the most understandable and forgivable. A man who (verifiably) survived a childhood in a concentration camp wrote about the experience to get himself out of serious financial trouble after he and his family were victims of an armed robbery that left his son disabled and his family in significant debt. He didn’t fabricate the awful bits, but he included a fictional love story in order to, yes, make the work more attractive to publishers, but also, according to him, to interject some joy into something that is otherwise unremittingly grim. I get it, Rosenblat. I, too, wish there had been an angel at your fence. But my research at the moment is taking me into the very dark places on the internet where the neo-Nazis dwell, and there, Angel at the Fence and the many other false holocaust memoirs are frequent fodder for Holocaust deniers. They aren’t discussing the tension between art and veracity. I’m pretty sure that most of them aren’t aware of the conversations happening at places like Essay Daily and The New Yorker. They’re just calling Rosenblat a lying word-I-will-not-type-here, and holding up the demonstrably false account–which he offered as a true on–as evidence that Shoah never happened. (And here I want to take a moment to apologize, because I realize I’m skating dangerously close to Godwin’s Law. My goal here is not to invoke Shoah in all its terrible majesty. It is just what I have on hand this morning to illustrate the point.)
Even if we accept as legitimate D’Agata’s project to train readers not to expect nonfiction to be genuinely nonfictional, I think we have to think about what happens while the audience is learning along with the art-makers not to read nonfiction with an expectation of veracity, whether or not the audience has agreed to do the work of that learning, and what possibilities might be lost if the writer can never lay claim to speaking as truthfully as she is able. Sometimes, art is about itself. Certainly, the essay or memoir that plays with truth in order to explore how the essay or memoir functions is about itself as much as it is about its subject matter. But not all art is about the creation of art. Sometimes art is about exploring social concerns, recovering histories, elevating perspectives not well represented in majority conversations, etc. And sometimes, those explorations require the artist to ask of those who receive her art to accept that that art is made only out of artifact, not artifice.
What change would be rendered, for instance, to the art project of “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic” if it turned out that the suitcases were sculptures created by the artists out of what they imagined they would find instead of being what they actually found? All I’m asking is that we not tell the reader she can never expect that work which claims to be made of artifact is ever actually made of artifact; that we don’t tell her she must always assume sculpture and never see suitcases. Because I think it matters which the audience encounters, even as they know that the experience of the art made out of the suitcases is a mediated experience different from encountering the suitcases themselves in that attic.
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.
May 18, 2016 § 18 Comments
By Gabriela Denise Frank
If you’re like me, writing is not your spouse, your fiance or your steady. Writing is your hot, secret lover who you only get to see in rare (and blissfully silent) hours stolen away from your commitments. If you’re like me, you don’t have a business card with the title Writer on it, either—yet writing is central to your identity and if you didn’t write, a part of you would die.
Each morning when the Instagram feeds of fellow writers greet me with photos of antique wooden desks near sunrise-drenched windows—always with steaming mugs of coffee and open journal pages—I think two things: 1) She is the luckiest person in the world, and 2) What have I done so wrong in life that every day doesn’t begin like this for me?
After a deep sigh, I set off onto my daily routine, which consists mainly of not-writing.
For me, writing comes only at night after dinner and a few minutes of quality time with my man-friend, a practice that I call Writing on the Fringes. Sometimes I get an hour, or even two, if I stay up past my bedtime. I often edit my work during the daily commute to and from my office, trying to write coherent notes as the bus bounces over potholes and traverses steep hills. (I’ve been asked several times if I am an English teacher, which sort of tickles me.)
After subtracting full-time employment, daily exercise, errands and the trappings of life, I might even get a few hours of writing on Saturdays and Sundays, too. Like a romantic affair, my scarce access to writing sweetens the moments and creates a hunger to return; I fantasize about writing most other hours of the day. This craving is also what allows me to flick past those Instagram photos and tell myself: Humph! If I had nothing to do but write all day, I probably wouldn’t love it as much.
Most of my pieces, fiction and essay, take me months to complete using the Fringe Method. Still, I’m very driven, and refuse to be stymied by the blank page or the fear of rejection. Piffle! I think. I’m slow, but who cares? When in doubt, keep writing. And I do. I chug along on nights and weekends and, over the course of a year, I usually produce several works. Writing on the margins has become my rhythm, and if you would have asked me to find additional time to write without ditching work or neglecting my mate, I would have said it was impossible.
Then the Southeast Review’s Writer’s Regimen came along. I signed up because I knew I’d be traveling too much this winter to take an in-person course. While I’ve tried (and failed at) MOOC courses, I liked the idea of receiving daily prompts and notes on craft by email every day—short assignments that I could reasonably complete, even as busy as I am. I was also drawn to the tight scope—one regimen a day for the month of February—meaning that I could dedicate myself to the exercises without neglecting my works in progress, yet a month afforded leeway if I missed a day’s assignment.
And what do you know: by the end of the first week, I had written ten pages in my notebook and filled another twelve the following week, even finding time to write on the road. Most of the exercises have resulted in vignettes or short scenes, each exploring an element of character, plot, setting, dialogue, diction or form that I wouldn’t have thought to attempt on my own. While I won’t use everything I’ve written verbatim, the exercises are helping to deepen my writing and uncover new angles within stories that I’ve been wrestling with for some time.
The most curious discovery is that these digital prompts have driven me to write more by hand. Since I don’t need a computer—just the prompt, my notebook and a pen—I can write at lunch or in the airport while waiting for a flight. Each day, these exercises reveal time that was previously untapped or undiscovered, uniting me with my lover if only for a nooner or quickie, and oh man, does it feel good to write! The more I do it—write for ten or fifteen minutes throughout the day—the more ready my imagination is each time I return to my notebook.
By taking up the pen again—literally—I have also reconnected to the kinesthetics of writing. I don’t bother trying to make perfect sentences or complete thoughts like I do when I type; instead, the work has become about play and exploration. The point is to experiment and if something isn’t working, to learn from it and move on. Upon reviewing what I’ve produced so far, I see that writing by hand has catalyzed a different kind of creativity within me. The physical connection between my brain and body, rather than a keyboard or screen, has released a raw and more powerful voice. Physical writing, it seems, has a different tone.
As the final week of the Writer’s Regimen begins, I find myself eagerly checking my email each morning, hungry for the day’s prompt. Rather than one more task to complete, the regimen has become a brief but potent practice of frolicking in language and story. I suddenly feel like writing is all around me, not just in scarce moments lingering at the edges of my life.
That’s what flow feels like, I realize—the sweet nectar of deep sensual ecstasy that erases the boundaries of time. The joy is simply everywhere.
Like all affairs, the Writer’s Regimen will soon end and I will exit the experience forever changed; March 1 will be both bitter and sweet.
Thankfully, the start of the next regimen is only a few weeks off. No doubt, by then I’ll be hankering for our sweet stolen moments together… and this time, I may not even tell my boyfriend.
Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas, An Italian Fellowship Journey. Her essays and fiction appear in The Rumpus, Word Riot, ARCADE and Bird’s Thumb. She lives and writes in Seattle.
May 17, 2016 § 2 Comments
By Anthony Michael Morena
The Voyager Record: A Transmission —my lyric essay on the music, images, sounds, and greetings that were sent into space mounted on the interstellar Voyager spacecrafts in 1977 — is just over 13,000 book-length words. And the pieces inside of it are each very short fragments, some no longer than a sentence or two long.
I used extreme brevity in The Voyager Record but not because it seemed cute to tell the story of the longest journey from Earth with short pieces. It was a style that even took me by surprise, and I was the one using it. Before I began The Voyager Record, I was strictly a writer of fiction: I had sworn off poetry and had never considered writing essays of any kind. But a succession of books written in nontraditional, short length formats changed all of that. These are the books that converted me.
Postcards to Donald Evans: Takashi Hiraide
Shortness was part of The Voyager Record from the very beginning. The initial writing I did for it—which appears in the book mostly intact as the second and third fragments in this selection—was inspired by the short prose fragments of Takashi Hiraide’s Postcards to Donald Evans. Donald Evans was an artist whose life was cut tragically short when he died in a fire while living in the Netherlands. His artistic work is based on creating stamps for pastiche European nations. Hiraide becomes obsessed—at first sarcastically, but then movingly—with Evans’ stamp paintings and life. The fragments in the book were short because Hiraide wrote them on postcards; actual postcards he addressed to Evans. Hiraide’s brevity was determined by the physical space of the mail. A reader can feel the rectangular, justified text blocks reaching across from one edge of the postcard to another. To emulate Hiraide, I kept my text within the size of the picture of the Pioneer plaque I was writing about, as if it were the verso side of a postcard.
The Bricolage Novels: David Markson
After composing a dozen or so prose poem pieces, I realized that extreme brevity—the fragments that consist of only one or two sentences—could allow me to unite the loose material I had into a larger whole. These short fragments were directly influenced by David Markson’s bricolage novels Reader’s Block, This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel. In what he called a “personal genre,” Markson strung together one-line factoids about notable artists, writers, and historical figures, with occasional asides by his nearly featureless author-surrogates Reader, Author, Writer, and Novelist. Markson was someone whom I had met and talked with while I worked at The Strand bookstore in New York. He complained that he was no longer able to enjoy fiction, but found himself absorbed only in reading nonfiction. Before I wrote The Voyager Record I was coming to a version of the same opinion.
Reality Hunger: David Shields
A big influence on the about-face I made between fiction and nonfiction was David Shields. I had read his “manifesto” Reality Hunger about a year before I started to write The Voyager Record. In the short, numbered, *plagiarized* passages in that book, his argument won me over. Remixing nonfiction could create a whole new literary genre. One thing that Shields demonstrated, but didn’t explicitly state, is that remix culture depends on brevity. Like in music, sampled text should sound off and then fade away in snippets. I knew that using this kind of sample technique—with attribution, because I didn’t want to get sued—I could juxtapose facts from the story about Voyager’s creation with the more speculative, and downright fictional parts of the book. My “stealing” was always small scale: a quote from here, a list of scientific specs from there. What I got most from Shields was permission.
Varieties of Disturbance: Lydia Davis
By the time I was finished writing, I had prose poem-size pieces, and line-length pieces, and tidbits I found in different sources, and (at four pages) one relatively long story—a combination that I realized was heavily influenced by Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance. She could place a single-sentence fragment next to a page-length prose block then follow it up with a short story. The text layout of The Voyager Record definitely looks like Varieties of Disturbance, but Davis’s collection also had an impact on the content of The Voyager Record. Though technically fiction (and at 24 pages, definitely not very short), her story “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders” is told in a nonfictional style: the “story” is a data-driven analysis of a grade school class’ artistic responses to an injured classmate’s stay in the hospital. The analysis in the story breaks down specific elements of the children’s letters—their penmanship, the salutations, sentence structure, word occurrence—a cold, calculated process I applied to the contents of the Voyager record.
Most importantly, the writers who I credit for influencing The Voyager Record were all exhilarating to read. By bucking conventional length and style restrictions, they taught me a way to write that felt more natural and honest than any traditional form ever had.
Anthony Michael Morena is a writer from New York who lives in Tel Aviv. In 2015 he received his MA in creative writing from Bar-Ilan University. His poetry and prose have appeared in The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Flapperhouse, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He has also been a guest editor for The Ilanot Review and a regular reader for Gigantic Sequins, a good-looking, biannual, black & white literary arts journal. The Voyager Record: A Transmission (Rose Metal Press 2016) is his first book. Find him on Twitter @anphimimor and at anthonymichaelmorena.com.