New Ohio Review Seeks Intense, Ambivalent, Stylish Essays
March 22, 2016 § 3 Comments
David Wanczyk, editor of New Ohio Review, discusses the sort of nonfiction the magazine is seeking for its inaugural Creative Nonfiction contest and beyond:
Beyond quirks of voice and persona, what draws me in to a personal essay or memoir? I’ve tried—probably in vain—to codify this over the years for, and with, my CNF students. But we’ve come up with a pretty easy-to-remember partial list of three things.
- Intensity. Is the situation the writer explores something that could be called intense? I had a drama teacher who suggested that when you’re watching a play, you’re seeing the biggest moments of the characters’ lives. So, is that happening in a personal piece? Are we seeing signature joys and/or pains? Struggles and/or victories that hurtle us toward the end? In other words, is there some plot-urgency? Think Mary Karr. If no Karrvian intensity, is there. . .
- Ambivalence. It’s become clearer to me that one of the things I don’t like in conversation is hearing from someone who’s absolutely sure of everything, even when circumstances seem to demand productive unsureness, probing curiosity, brow-scrunching what-the-heckism, agonized inconclusivity. So, is a personal piece exploring some difficult question, and in a way that seems authentic? (On second thought, sometimes I like when writers/leaders are sure about things. Maybe I could write an essay about the warring factions of. . .). Think Montaigne, or D.F. Wallace. Nothing intense coming to mind? No burning question? Well, what about. . .
- Nostalgia. Hmm, but that word’s not quite right, because it brings to mind the memoir that dwells, or the essay that is potentially reactionary about 1959 (wasn’t it a simpler time?). What I think my students and I mean by nostalgia, though, is this: the piece’s scenes are so lovingly constructed that, put simply, the reader feels overjoyed to be in the presence of a writer who’s bombastically creating the past, a past that might be intense, a past that the essayist might be unsure of, a past that might be important for the writer now. There’s something at stake in the memory. It’s costing something, or inciting a particular pleasure. Not only did the writer have an uncanny romantic experience, but she remembers the skipping Gin Blossoms’ CD (“Hey Jeala-jeala-jeala”), the bowl of Almond Joys on the nearest table she kept around as a futile-sweet memorial to her deceased aunt, and the bizarre smell—Calla Lilies and mushroom soup?—emanating from a heating vent. Maybe that otherwise familiar romantic scene gets a new lease on life because of the odd combination. The writer has gone to the thrift-shop of memory, and those memories, worn together, are stylish.Think Didion’s bloody mary and billowing curtains in “Goodbye to All That.” Nabokov’s heave-hoed father in Speak, Memory. Orwell’s everything in “Such, Such Were the Joys.”
I like every kind of personal story. I’m not a teacher/writer/editor who throws up his hands about “typical grief” or the “clichéd relationship tale.” Everything can be done well. But I do see essays—sometimes written by me—that aren’t enough about charitably communicating with an audience.
Keeping the above list in mind might help me, might help students and CNF writers of all stripes, write their urgent stories: with one eye on the navel and shoe, and one eye on the eager reader, who wants nothing more than to be invited into a complicated, questioning life.
The magazine’s submission period and nonfiction contest continue until Apr. 15th, and subscribers may continue to submit throughout the summer. Check out New Ohio Review if any of this sounds good to you. We’re at https://newohioreview.submittable.com/submit .