AWP 2014: Comedy is Tragedy Plus Time

March 13, 2014 § 5 Comments

mr lopate

“Lefty”Lopate. Photo courtesy of Marla Sink Druzgal []

Alle C. Hall reports on the panel, “Lightening Up the Dark: The Role of Humor in Memoir.”

Stop whining, dang you!

Naturally, the panelist stated it more kindly and with greater eloquence, fessing up to arrogance and regret, to fear, even self-pity—so long as by the final draft, self-pity was gone, gone, gone.

Philip Lopate and Suzanne Greenberg’s craft talks opened and closed the event. Greenberg teaches CNF at Cal State Fullerton, while Lopate goes about the lucky business of being Lopate. He suggested:

  1. Say horrendous things that everyone thinks but no one says out loud.
  2. Say them blithely.
  3. At least teeter on the edge of completely unacceptable.
  4. Use slightly anachronistic language.
  5. Be exquisitely modest.
  6. Poke fun at one’s own cowardice, cruelty, and selfishness.

Susanne Greenberg described students regularly writing about personal tragedies without understanding the unremarkable nature of their tragedies. To help them “stop staring out the window in regret,” she:

  1. infuses the classroom with humor, primarily through her attitude;
  2. looks for moments of humor in an otherwise serious work; and
  3.  seeks revelation, a slashing truth in a lighter piece.

To my mind, she was speaking to the Chekhovian state of joy-filled pain, or pain-filled joy. I can’t out which was which, but do know that it doesn’t matter. The three authors that spoke between Lopate and Greenberg—Joe Mackall, Mimi Schwartz, and Daniel Stolar—understand keenly what it means to share that gift.

Joe Mackall wasted no time getting to busting guts. “Speaking after Phillip Lopate must be like what Danny DeVito feels, at a bar with Brad Pitt. They’re not there for you but there is decent overflow.”

Mackall then dove into a confession of true fear, and the separate fear of writing trite. Was he a “sentimental idiot” because:

  • he was ageing. (Riff: when incontinence finally gets too embarrassing, he plans to smoke a lot of weed.)
  • he refuses to get new carpet in the library because his granddaughters had crawled across the old.

Mimi Schwartz taught the gift by sharing it. She described a moment, when she was at an emotional nadir from loosing her breasts to cancer, that her husband went about their house, saying, “Here, titty, titty; Here, titty, titty.”

She said, “Question the premise that seriousness is more valid than honest humor. Let’s not choose. Let’s go for good writing and good reading, toward a more complex truth.” Schwartz encouraged what she called, “the anger that may start the piece” giving way to something so much more than a way to get over your tragedy. It can turn survival into thriving.

The ideal segue for Dan Stolar, who read work so personal that he remains undecided as to whether to publish it. To honor his choice, I’ll share some of his wisdom, instead.

  • “I use humor to try to break your heart, and to try to keep mine from breaking in the process.”
  • “Make the reader complicit.” He mentioned a gossip-nasty joke that came up two times. “Some of you laughed twice.”
  •  “You are not joking, even as you are trying to make someone laugh. But we are not joking.”

Note the shift in pronoun.

It was gorgeous, witnessing the writers enjoy their work with a seeming lack of self-absorption. Their work seemed at a point where they were curious about people (including themselves) as the walking diagnoses that we are. And the moments that scored the biggest laughs were those when one of them looked up from their prose with a pause, and a self-effacing chuckle.

Alle C. Hall’s blog, About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children, is accepting submissions for The Not-Nearly-Annual Frozen Fish Head Haiku Contest. Ms. Hall is a saucy lass, but serious about comic haiku.

Write Funny, Win Money

August 22, 2019 § 8 Comments

Ever wondered how to get into McSweeney’s, the New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs, the Belladonna, Slackjaw, or another prestigious humor site? It’s not easy, but it’s not hard—write something very funny, make sure it fits the venue’s tone, send it in.

Step one tends to trip us up. How can you write funny, on demand?

Writing comedy is a learned skill. Yes, some writers start with more talent than others, but it’s not talent that makes an essay hilarious. Humor comes from a great premise (that you thought up after discarding 50 similar-but-not-as-good ideas), a specific point of view (that took a couple of drafts to get to) and tight, focused writing with careful word choices (that took another few drafts to whittle out of the initial bloated, semi-funny word glob).

Here’s a chance to learn the skill, and maybe win some money and/or publish your own comedy writing.

Slackjaw, Medium’s most-read humor publication (90,000+ followers), wants to support humor writers—and aspiring humor writers—everywhere, with their first Humor Writing Challenge.

Most writing contests are set-it-and-forget-it. Send in your work and hope for the best. This one’s different. Participants in the contest will be pitching ideas (so they can choose the best/funniest one to write), getting peer feedback, and re-writing. An online community will provide support and direction to contestants. Even if you don’t have a burning desire to write comedy, this process can introduce you to collaborative idea development, and how to solicit and implement editorial ideas in your own work. Plus, you’ll have deadlines to generate some specific assignments, and motivation to rewrite and sharpen your work.

The judges panel includes comedy writers for The Onion, Comedy Central, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, etc, and there’s $2000 in cash prizes. Finalists will have their work considered for (paid) publication on Medium, too.

If you want to publish humor writing, or you need a kickstart on your autumn writing plan with a fun, supportive environment, consider signing up for Slackjaw’s Humor Writing Challenge.

Find out more and sign up here.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Find her at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference this weekend, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram for choice bits of conference writing advice.

Remediation: Creative Revision in the Comp Classroom

December 6, 2017 § 3 Comments

StacyMurison14_005SmallThe second installment of a series of blog essays by Stacy Murison discussing her use of creative nonfiction prompts and approaches in her first-year composition classes.

As we near the end of the semester, my thoughts turn from creation to revision as our composition students complete one last assignment: a Remediation project. This concept was borrowed from rhetoric studies, where students are asked to transform a piece of existing writing into a new medium such as a video essay, or to consider using an existing medium (Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat) to re-imagine their essay in a new format. Remediation in this case is an opportunity for revision of both form and words.

A challenge always is that students can’t imagine returning to work already submitted and graded and sometimes hope this means that they will get a better grade on their first project. When I explain that remediation is an opportunity to imagine their work in a different way, there’s some hesitation. And, by hesitation, I mean groaning.  Like most of us, it’s also difficult initially to imagine exactly how we can revise and improve on our work. For me, I fall in love with the arrangement and emotion of a piece and usually have to step back from an essay for several weeks, or ask a friend to critique it, in order to see clearly revision opportunities. For students, there is some confusion (even this late in the semester) between surface-level editing and a more global revision approach, coupled with the feeling of wanting to move forward with projects, not backward.

I have also heard from students that they don’t often get to write creatively or infuse their own ideas and personality in their work at the college level. I leverage this feeling into a combination of three writing exercises to help students understand the revision process. These exercises are focused on how they tell their own personal stories, which leads into discussions later on how they can use these techniques to revise their essays for the Remediation project.

The first exercise encourages students to write a brief movie trailer about a day in their life. I use YouTube throughout the semester to show students commercials and movie trailers coupled with writing and group activities that help them identify narrative elements, audiences, and appeal techniques. After consuming this type of media all semester, they are primed to write their own trailer. The trailer I show as an example for this exercise is for Jerry Seinfeld’s movie Comedians (2002) and plays with typical movie tropes for action films; part of the humor is that the film is not an action film.

Students can use a “Mad Libs” template I provide or write their own, borrowing the elements from the Comedians trailer or other trailers they’ve seen throughout the semester. I provide index cards so they can write their trailers and set a timer for 5 – 7 minutes. Is their own day-in-a-life story a rom-com? An action film? A comedy? I give examples of a blind date gone wrong, a roommate who chews too loudly, or the pain of waking up for an 8 a.m. writing class. The audience is their classmates and me, who by this time know each other pretty well.

The template looks something like this:


After they write their trailers on index cards, I shuffle the cards and pass them to another classmate to read. Some students insert dialog and notes on sound effects or cues for the type of music we could expect to hear as part of their written trailer for their reader. Readers will sometimes read in “voice-over” voice. We then guess who wrote the trailer and talk about the identifying elements used and why it might have been easy or difficult to guess the author. This becomes a discussion of their personal writing styles which they have developed over the semester. The exercise introduces a new aspect to consider as they revise a project—who they are in relation to the piece and, because they know their audience, ideas for how to infuse their personality and voice in a new medium.

Students in one of my sections this semester encouraged me to run this exercise as a “true” Mad Libs, where they start writing their story as a trailer and a classmate finishes it. I think this is an excellent idea—it might demonstrate exactly how well the audience knows them, or how to be even more specific in their word choices for an intended audience.

The next exercise involves writing a personal “warning label.” With another round of index cards and five minutes of writing time, I ask them to write a warning label they would wear all day to help others understand how to interact with them. I keep this exercise to 15 words or less—t-shirt slogan-length—and show them some t-shirt images from on-line catalogs such as Signals and Think Geek. We again share these as a class and try to guess who the author is. This exercise helps students distill aspects of themselves and their ideas into a few words—a seemingly impossible task made possible.

The final exercise is a further distillation—the Six-Word Memoir. I have used this writing exercise a few different ways. It works well for the Remediation project because it demonstrates the power of a few well-chosen words. I have also used it for one-minute papers (or “exit tickets”) to check in and see how students are doing in the course overall or with a specific project. For additional fun on the last day of class, I ask the students to write a new six-word memoir that encompasses their journey as a writer throughout the semester.

Re-imagining and repackaging their life stories through the exercises help students access new ideas for potential revision opportunities for their previous projects. Through these exercises, students develop a strong sense of voice, tone, audience, and word choice delivered in active and fun ways that are centered on who they are and how they present themselves. Now they are ready to revisit their previous projects in order to transform their essays into a new medium and with well-crafted and chosen words.

So, what do these projects look like? I had a student reimagine her review of a local pizza restaurant (she thought she could make a better pizza at home) as a Tasty video using her iPhone and posting the video to Facebook. She used the Tasty conventions of an ingredient list and fast-and slow-motion video capture of the pizza making. Another student loved reality television shows and reimagined her review project (a camping trip gone wrong) into a short YouTube video with her roommates as the actors. She followed specific show conventions (Keeping Up with the Kardashians) such as a staged fight and fast-motion photography between scenes. Other students have captured their work in Instagram formats creating new hashtags and writing micro-essays for their photos. Still others use Twitter for a series of connected tweets (or threads) about a specific topic. One student explored folk music for his I-Search project and wrote original lyrics and melody, which he performed in class on his acoustic guitar. Another took his I-Search project on depression and wrote lyrics and a melody, which he recorded to SoundCloud and shared with the class. This type of revision through the Remediation project gives students an opportunity to use platforms they are familiar with and use regularly, as well as showcase their talents. Even students who tell me they are not “creative” have made videos, written hip-hop lyrics, performed comedy routines, or shared photographs on VSCO, Instagram, or Tumblr. As part of the Remediation, students present their work to the class and talk about the choices they made during the revision process.

The results often surprise and humble me, and I think even surprise the students, especially when they hear all of the positive feedback from their classmates during their presentations. Through this entire process, revision is viewed less as an odious task and more as an opportunity for re-invention and re-imagination for both the students themselves and the work they have produced through Remediation.


Additional Resource  

Tarsa, Becca. Remediation. Digital Rhetoric Collaborative. 25 April 2014. Accessed 1 November 2017


** Very special thanks to students Carly, Ethan, and Dmitrius for sharing your work with us.


Stacy Murison received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University where she now teaches composition. Her work can be found in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, River Teeth, Hobart, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others.

It’s a Privilege

February 9, 2015 § 8 Comments

Dubai-Property-11Hananah Zaheer weighs in on the recent discussion in Salon, Dame, Missouri Review, Bustle, Medium and on various personal blogs, about writers, money, privilege and support. 

It’s a privilege.

I often joke that I wish I was a writer in the old days. Non-specific, old days where artists had patrons who took care of their expenses and living, and all they were responsible for was writing, creating, painting. My husband likes to remind me that I do: him.

This is true. Much like Ann Bauer admits in her Salon piece I, too, must confess that I do not have the pressures that come from having difficult financial circumstances. I live in Dubai in a nice neighborhood. I have help at home, I drive a nice car; I had never considered the word exactly, but I fit the description of being “sponsored.” I work, too, but it has been mostly as an adjunct and let’s face it, that is not the chosen path towards affluence. I have the luxury to be an improviser, be involved in theatre, run a comedy sketch-writing workshop. These are things that being “kept” affords me.

Am I still jealous of other writers? You bet I am.

You see, privilege comes in many different forms. It is true that I don’t have to think too much about shelling out money for conferences, or that I don’t have the pressure of making ends meet. But what this also means that I am at the mercy of someone else’s schedule: Last minute meetings, work trips, a deal that requires furious emailing back and forth. For the sake of my husband’s job, I live thousand of miles away from my writing community without access to “contacts” and “networks” and meetings and readings and all the things that make a writing community.

I am envious of writer friends who do nothing but churn out novel after novel, story after story without being distracted by sick kids and football games. I will admit this out loud: being a mother and a writer is hard work. Probably as hard as “rotting in a cubicle” like Laura Bogart says in her response to Bauer. And yet writers like Jane Smiley, Zadie Smith, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison (the list goes on) make it work.

The lack of privilege of a certain kind is no excuse. It just is what it is. I suspect it is much like anything else: Being a lawyer and a writer, being a doctor and a mother. Two professions in one lifetime is a lot for anyone.

I, too, am making my way through.

What I am suggesting is that there are enough challenges in the writing life without the added guilt of having a particular kind of privilege. As if a lack of financial struggle means I haven’t quite earned…something. A status, perhaps? A badge of merit? Or legitimacy as a writer?

The things Bogart speaks of, the “selling cardigans at Lord & Taylor; a graduate student tutoring kindergarteners on the alphabet and prepping high-school seniors for their SATs; an adjunct with a five-class courseload across two campuses” are indeed difficulties. But just as she has made room for writing in her life, so do I, so do we all.

And in some ways, I feel that anyone’s success as a writer comes despite the privilege, and not completely because of it. The debate about the different challenges writers face is out there and if we are to spend more time exploring it, perhaps the discussion could use a focus on the different aspects of the shared experience of struggle, and not just the idea of making a living. Yes, it is important to acknowledge where we are and what the things are that make our lives easier, but if I look around, if I ask all the writers I know, most would say they are making their way through in one way or another.

A writer friend and I had this conversation over text in the wake of the debate over acknowledging privilege.

“I feel our desire to write is equally legitimate,” I was saying, “not related to what we have.”

“Well, it is,” she goes, “somehow even more so that we are willing to create art despite not having all these struggles. Besides,” she said, coming back from a brief disappearance, “I am kept and I am still cleaning the bathroom.”

Enough said.


Hananah Zaheer writes, lives, and teaches in Dubai. She is an Associate Fiction Editor for the Potomac Review.

My Very End of the Universe: Dark Humor and Family Dogs

November 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

PhotoChrisBowerConcluding our series of interviews between authors featured in the new anthology, My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form from Rose Metal Press, Margaret Patton Chapman interviews Chris Bower about his flash novella “The Family Dogs” and using fiction to approximate memoir

MC: You write in your essay about composing initially with line breaks. Is this helpful in discovering the humor in these pieces?

CB: Careful attention to line helps with rhythm and timing as well as humor. I have always enjoyed writing in short lines because I am able to find a lot of room to breathe without having to use commas and the freedom that comes with the restriction makes me have to use my imagination a lot more, to accomplish something in every line, in every transition, seeing them as moments. So when you take those lines out, you sometimes lose a little bit but you can try to salvage the experience using traditional prose. I wonder if comedians would benefit from writing with line breaks and stanzas and to be honest, I have no idea how people write funny things. Comedy writing has always been something I have been afraid of because I always hate the idea of trying to write things that are funny.  If anything I write is funny, is not because I sat down and said to myself, “Now here is a funny story.” The material—family—lends itself to dark humor, and the nature of the voice—a boy in charge of his life stories for the first time—includes delusion and exaggeration, some of our best qualities and one of the reasons why we are all so sad, amazing, and absolutely ridiculous.

MC: You write that you started with anecdotes about a family similar to the one you grew up in, where each member is known by the “tiny and fast” stories that the other members can retell. Did this form free you to fictionalize and mythologize?

CB: My family will recognize some of the stories in this book but they will not recognize themselves because they aren’t really in there. Wait, let me take that back. My mother will believe that I tried to write about her but that I have just done a terrible job, and she will say about the filthy mouth of the mother in my novella, “I never swore around you.”  Even when I have written plays in which a mother dies, she will remind me after that she is still alive. What is alive from my family in these flash stories are the imaginations of me and my brothers growing up, as well as the influence of both of my parents storytelling. My father, who would never drink beer at the beach, did tell us where he found us, in dumpsters and clutching buoys in the lake and the stories were always changing. And not being raised to believe in God was really the best thing that happened to my imagination, because I thought that unreal things could be real in a way that could be all about me and be applied to my life. While most of me knew the stories weren’t true, I knew that I could at least dream that they were and I think my head has a higher tolerance for fiction than most because I knew from a young age that the “truth” was not usually the most important quality of a story.

MC: How is fictionalizing different or more freeing than writing a memoir-in-flash?

CB: This project for me, which was one of my first whole collections of interconnected material, is probably the closest that I will ever get to writing a memoir and if I did try to write a memoir about my actual childhood, it would probably end up being less honest than this. Writing in a fictional voice, and using this novella-in-flash form, I think I was able to get closer to the essence of being a smart and sad kid finding his imagination as both a blessing and a curse. Writing a memoir would have to end with me turning out just fine but with Al, who is in a lot of ways not me, but me in pieces, I think I am able to tell something very true about where I have been and maybe it will be more relatable as fiction, without me being able to defend myself. While I think there are plenty of other ways to do this, I think the form of novella-in-flash is a challenging but effective way to approach trying to slowly build both individual characters and the idea of a whole family made up of them.


Chris Bower is a writer and teacher based in Chicago. He is the curator and host of the Ray’s Tap Reading Series and a founding member of Found Objects Theatre Group. Little Boy Needs Ride, his book of short stories with illustrations by Susie Kirkwood, is forthcoming in 2015 from Curbside Splendor Publishing. You can find him at

The Far Edges: A Story About a Girl

April 9, 2014 § 4 Comments

In an excerpt from the recently released The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, Jonathan Rovner ponders what creative nonfiction writers can do when our reality “becomes not just somewhat, but remarkably nondramatic? What happens when the conduits through which our emotions flow seem frivolous and somehow beneath mention among civilized people?”(Our “Far Edges Week” interview with co-editor Sean Prentiss ran on the blog yesterday.)


vertI watched Vertigo in college, because I was in college and it was the sort of film you were supposed to watch. I liked it well enough and promptly forgot all about it. But for whatever reason, the film has recently resurfaced from the morass in my brain where old movies go to die, and so one night I biked down to retrieve a copy from the nearest locally owned video store (that is, I streamed it on Netflix). As you may know, it’s a very weird movie. At its heart is Jimmy Stewart’s obsession with Kim Novak, which isn’t much of a mystery if you’ve ever seen Kim Novak. But I found myself marveling at the cinematic crispness of Stewart’s obsession. Here he is trailing her to an old Spanish mission, and an art museum, and San Francisco Bay. Eventually the two of them fling body against body against the moody wet backdrop of a redwood forest. Oh, sweet release.

But it was the quieter moments that drew me in: Stewart tailing her in his car, or awkwardly interrogating the owner of an apartment house. The potential dangers behind every door, the frantic dread of losing Novak in traffic or the cold indifferent waters of the Bay. And studying Stewart’s face—pallid and sweaty, creased with hope and anticipation and fear—I realized that I’d had those same feelings not so long ago, but my obsession didn’t look anything like his. It didn’t look like much of anything.

I envy his obsession, the narrative satisfaction of it. But it’s 2012. It’s hard to get there from here.

So this is a story about a girl, and of course any time a guy says that it’s a dead giveaway that it’s really about him. Okay, it’s about me. You know my name, and I’m not going to tell you hers. But I’ve come to detest bland pseudonyms. If you’ve got a story about a girl named Lara and change her name to Anne, what’s the point? You may as well go all out. This is my story about Ms. Clarissa Applesauce.

Some background: In the fall of 2008, I moved from Denver to Eastern Kentucky to take a job teaching English at a small university that will go unnamed. Due to the particulars of regional heritage (whatever that means), Nom de Guerre, KY was in no sense a College Town. It was, rather, a typically sad rural town that happened to have a university within its city limits. I took a small studio apartment just off of Mainstreet—a block of mostly empty stores kept that way by the two families who had owned it for decades and were determined to keep the 21st Century (and much of the 20th) from intruding upon the bucolic calm of their Appalachian paradise. I lived across the lot from Mainstreet’s most lucrative business: a drive-thru liquor store that opened at 7AM and did a brisk business with the early risers.

And thus did I find myself marooned in a foreign land far from home, and it seemed the perfect time to embrace my inner ascetic, that contemplative monk I’d always sensed dwelling deep in my chest who would only come into his own if forcibly divorced from the din of constant and easily accessible stimuli. I would live, if not like Thoreau, at least like my literary heroes from the Twenties. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Nate West, John Fante—whatever their faults, none of them had to endure the ignominy of finding themselves clicking mindlessly on a link entitled “Keira Knightley Goes Shopping.”

So I declared my life television and Internet free. I had my music, my books. In this grand fantasy, I saw myself hunched over in my walk-in closet of an apartment reading Proust and Tolstoy, maybe even Finnegan’s Wake. Why not? We all know one hour of unperturbed silence has as many minutes as three or four hours of random Internet puttering or stupefied television viewing. Come Eastern Kentucky or high water, I too would live deliberately.

In retrospect, I view this experiment as a scientific one: can a man survive for an entire year feeding on nothing but delusion?

Because, of course, once stimuli were gone, I missed them terribly. Whatever the ultimate benefits might be of plodding through Remembrance of Things Past, they in no way could compete with the free and depressive clarity of clicking from website to website, seeking something, anything, to temporarily distract my brain. My daily routine went like this: teach in classroom, hang out in office with the magical “Internet” that existed there, come home to throw oneself down on bed or floor. Either nap or stare at ceiling. Eat. Return to office till midnight, drown self in Internet. Reflect on life. Contemplate buying volleyball to talk to. Without a scintilla of evidence to the contrary, pretend tomorrow will be different.

Tomorrow: repeat today.

I lived like this for nine months. But then (cue upbeat hopeful emo song), I met a girl—the aforementioned Ms. Applesauce. I struck up a conversation in Nom de Guerre’s only coffee shop, which was actually a small alcove off the town’s only bookstore. She was reading Slaughterhouse-Five. In what can only be described as my smoothest pick-up line ever, I asked her if she liked it. She referred to it as a great “cuddle-buddy.” I still have no idea what this means. But conversation ensued and numbers were exchanged and we planned to meet for a drink a few days later.

I was a new man, and spent those intervening days in a whirl-a-gig of euphoria. I walked up and down the bombed-out streets of Nom de Guerre dreaming of all the adventures that awaited us—road trips to Nashville and Asheville, star-spangled nights camping out in the Smoky Mountains or romping through the cheap tourist paradise that is Gatlinburg, TN.

These flights of fancy were ridiculous, but they sure beat lying on the floor counting the speckles in the ceiling.

I suppose I could draw out our first (and, spoiler alert, only date, paint a colorful scene and detail the social anxieties and social cues and social etceteras. But let’s not. The bare bones go like this:

1. She brought three friends. They talked in a closed-circuit about people I’d never met and events I hadn’t attended.

2. Besides her friends, she knew about 78% of the other patrons. (If you were born in Eastern Kentucky, it’s apparently impossible not to know at least 2/3rd of the people in any given room.) They swallowed her up.

3. She got really drunk. I got regular drunk.

4. I sat alone at the bar—oh, glorious cliché—for god knows how long and eventually watched her staggering out of the bar with her friends.

5. I walked home.

Cue sad hopeless emo song.

End of story.

Except it wasn’t.

That night was only a prelude to the real story, which began the next day when she sent what I’ll refer to as E-mail#1. She apologized profusely, told me she was fresh from an abusive relationship. The abuser had been her fiancée. They’d set a date and everything.

I wrote back something heartfelt and dripping with empathy. I’m pretty sure I included that James Wright poem about wishing words were grass. Thus began our electronic correspondence. She told me she was no good at this; she was shy and nervous. She needed to go slow.

Sure, I said.

I returned to Colorado for the summer. We “talked” via e-mail and text message. I wore out the buttons on my phone crafting exquisitely edited texts. I drafted e-mails, printed them out, and sat outside on my brother’s porch late into the night revising until they were just right. I gently pushed for a phone call, but she had a thing about talking on the phone.  It was too…immediate. Too close. Uncontrolled.

Sure, I said.

And of course it was weird, and unorthodox. But those adjectives are right up my alley. Who wants a non-weird orthodox girlfriend?

She convinced me to join Facebook, which up till then I’d successfully avoided on the basis of some vague, hard-to-explain principle. Sort of like the Indians who feared cameras could flash away their souls. But I was in the long grass now, and I guiltily clicked on her photos and Older Posts. My mother had taught me from a very young age not to be the kind of person who rifles through people’s drawers when they’re not home. But this was a new kind of house—windows wide open, not a locked door in sight. Or like a diary left open on the coffee table, adorned with a post-it note that screamed READ ME!

So I did.

I pondered every male face for hints—which one of these yokels was her erstwhile fiancée? Which were potential suitors? I took mental notes of her likes and dislikes, which didn’t disappoint. She liked The Godfather and David Bowie in Labyrinth. She loved Bob Dylan and obscure underground bands I’d never heard of. If my friends had invented a girl to torment me, they couldn’t have done much better.

And still came the e-mails and text messages—every day, every other day. She’d text me when she was tromping through the mud on her parents’ stamp of eastern Kentucky soil; she’d text me when she had a nightmare. She sent YouTube links to songs, snippets of philosophy. I studied her e-mails and texts as though I could uncover hidden nuance and meaning—the lonely kabbalist at work. They couldn’t just be words. Too much was riding on this. “Too much,” naturally, being the omnipresent fear of another year of wretched Appalachian solitude.

We made plans to meet again when I returned to Kentucky in August.

August came. E-mail#58 (all numbers are approximate) made plans to meet for a hike. Two days later, Text#2,144 introduced a reason to delay. I would hear nothing for a week, then be greeted one fine morn by an e-mail explaining that some minor catastrophe—ex-boyfriend drama, sick grandfathers, the weather—was to blame. And we’d start over.

I grew impatient and ever more confused with her excuses, which were legion and rarely creative. My only excuse, presumably, was desperation. To be fair, I was desperate. But also intrigued. She was smart, and interesting, and damaged in some irresistible Sylvia Plath (or, if you will, Fiona Apple) way that fed my admittedly naive Savior fantasies. This was 2009, remember—a time of hope. I was the change she’d been waiting for.

Each new message was the proverbial shot of adrenaline straight into my atrophied heart. When two or three days passed without hearing from her, I grew restless and sunk. I’d send a text, and wait. Then a follow-up text. And wait. I’d send an e-mail, and wait. And wait.

She seemed to have an otherworldly ability to gauge my level of frustration. As soon as I was ready to completely and irrevocably be rid of her there would come the familiar Pavlovian vibrating beep of a new text message to just-barely renew my battered hopes.

Parry, thrust.

Step forward, step back. Make plans and break them.

This went on for over a year.

Let’s not draw this sad story out any longer. But rest assured that I didn’t quit Facebook the first time I tried. And I couldn’t quit her. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but more than that, it felt like I was being jerked to and fro by a girl and a relationship that didn’t even exist. An unhealthy relationship I could handle, because at least it would pass the time. But this was metaphysical humiliation. If a normal face-to-face relationship is a simple (or even not-so-simple) math equation, then this was some abstruse mathematical proof full of symbols you’ve never seen before. Or else pure gibberish.

I’d erase her e-mails and texts, and resolutely tell myself not to contact her or respond when she, with the painful regularity of an iTunes service agreement, butted her electronic head back into my life. My resolve would crumble as soon as my phone started to buzz or I’d see her name pop up in the e-mail tag.

I don’t know what else to call it, if not an obsession. I don’t think Jimmy Stewart had anything on me. But I couldn’t explain it to my friends, or hardly to myself. The fact that it was playing out on a virtual stage was beyond humiliating. There was no “there” here. I rebuked myself for feelings that weren’t “real”—how could they be? Real things happened in the real world, a place of trees and tables and sidewalks and sticky barroom floors. This was happening exactly nowhere.

Eventually she just stopped. Eventually I moved on. But what this odd not-love affair from an odd time in my life spurred me into thinking is this: so much of life today—its victories, defeats, confusions—now comes to us in ways that seem tremendously uninteresting. Even if I filled the long spaces between texts and e-mails with local color (and eastern KY has plenty of that), it wouldn’t change the fundamental fact that this massive and consuming event in my life was taking place on a stage bereft of what we would traditionally consider tension and drama. I was sitting in my office checking my e-mail, or sleepwalking through my days until my phone buzzed with an incoming text. Pathetic might be a word I’d use, but dramatic it was not. Nor was it evocative, or resonant, or any of the other chipper workshop words we use to describe effective prose.

The great premise and promise of creative nonfiction is that—regardless of a few minor costume changes—these things are True. They happened to us, and they matter. But they also have to be interesting. What happens when our reality becomes not just somewhat, but remarkably nondramatic? What happens when the conduits through which our emotions flow seem frivolous and somehow beneath mention among civilized people?

Beneath us they may be, but they’re still here. And they won’t be going away anytime soon.

In the first act of Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart trails Kim Novak to the art gallery in the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. We get the establishing shot: Ionic and Corinthian columns and a Roman arch. Very classical, very classy. Inside, Stewart squints at Novak, who sits prim and stiff on a bench and gazes up at a painting. A bouquet of pink flowers lay beside her. She wears a cold grey dress-suit. Stewart strolls behind her in his gangly way, in his ill-fitting brown suit, with his furtive glances. He holds his brown fedora loosely with both hands. Novak’s hair is pulled back in a coiled French twist. The background music works to heighten the sense of thick museum silence.

No words are spoken. No words need to be spoken. And though Vertigo is, obviously, a work of visual fiction, that scene plays out in countless iterations countless times a day, in public spaces all over the world. A man looking at a woman. Deep feeling— lust, heartache, trepidation, hesitation, irritation—conveyed through fleeting glimpses and body language. No direct dialogue is necessary.

Clarissa Applesauce and I had words; it was all we had. Words sent to one another through the ether, through broadband and wifi. Words that presented themselves out of a void. Words without accompaniment, without context or environment to inform or enrich them. Words, words, words. The transcripts would total hundreds of pages, but they wouldn’t add up to anything approaching a compelling or enticing narrative.

Give me a rider on horseback passing love letters from one end of town to the other. Certainly I’ll paint you the local color: trees in full bloom or autumn rags, the wind through the rider’s hair or rain slanting violently down. The breathless gallop of the horse. But I’ll also give you the clanging of the bell announcing his arrival, the sky behind him as he stands framed in the doorway, his outfit, awkward greetings and pleasantries, the passing of the letter, the tactile feel of unfolding the envelope, a sense of the handwriting.

We’re worlds away from that, of course. But even a phone call has its awkward pauses, stumbles, tonal shifts, accusations, affirmations, endearments, silences, frantic pleas, or the jerky breathlessness of pacing around a room. I can do that. And I can do the meeting of eyes across a crowded party, all gestures and posturing; or a walk through the park; or even the quick freighted brush of knee against knee beneath the table in a pizza parlor or coffee shop.

But in the end, I haven’t the slightest idea how to write in full dramatic flourish of the highs and lows of my virtual Appalachian romance. And though I’ve since engaged in more traditional, “normal” (not to mention healthy) relationships, even these couldn’t be honestly rendered without the ways in which emotion in this second decade of the new millennium is bound up irrevocably with communication systems that didn’t exist a generation ago. A fun first-date is validated with a text good night, or a friendly e-mail the next day. Burgeoning relationships are punctuated with flirty and affectionate electronic missives, many of them containing grammar mistakes, truncated words, fatuous emoticons. Fights play out through the same satellites and wires. Who wants to read about that? And who wants to write about it?

As far as I can tell, the answer is no one. The answer for most writers is to hit the IGNORE key. Which may be a feasible option, I suppose, for writers of fiction. Just pretend it doesn’t exist in our lives. Create a fantasyland where the characters act like it’s still 1992. Pretend, as they do on television, that drivers and passersby and coffee shop patrons aren’t all acting as though they have advanced OCD, or like addicts who can’t go five full minutes without chasing the virtual dragon. This is the new normal. This is how we live.

Of course, not every event in our lives needs documenting. I’ve never felt cheated when a memoir doesn’t take bathroom breaks. But this omission feels different. We are engaged in a deliberate bout of wishful thinking, an almost childish game of “Let’s pretend.” Most people I know under forty (and that’s most people I know) dive into the Internet first thing in the morning. Even my friends who pride themselves on their hyperactive lifestyles—bouldering, skiing, rafting dangerous rapids—will plug back in as soon as they’ve finished their play-date with nature, and still spend significant hours of their days in front of a laptop or hunched over the computer that lives in their phone.

Significant is the operative word. Shouldn’t these modes of communication be recognized for the multifarious and important functions they serve in our lives? Can they be, in any way, interesting? And if our creative nonfiction can’t find a way to integrate this great and/or sad truth about how we spend our days, what does that say about our craft? Maybe we’re just fiction writers in disguise, sweeping under the rug what we find distasteful or shallow or boring about modern life in order to tell those truths that we find more elevated, more heightened, less embarrassing. Just reach for the preordained grace notes. Follow the old script. Aim for the same rote moment of clarity or flash of insight. One more tired epiphany on top of a mountain.

And to be honest, if I encountered a character in an essay or memoir who spent a significant portion of his days checking e-mail and reading texts—who acted as many of us act—I would almost certainly laugh. How preposterous he seems, grasping after his silly gadgets. A caricature, really. A flat one-note joke.

I don’t have a solution to this problem.

I read somewhere that one of many reasons The Simpsons is considered such a landmark achievement is because it was the first show to portray a family doing what families had been doing for decades: lounging around and watching TV. But that’s satire. It’s comedy. And while I might be able to successfully render my “unreal” relationship with Clarissa as pure farce, it wouldn’t be True. Maybe it was a farce of sorts, this connection built on clipped text messages and sitting alone in rooms at my computer waiting, waiting—god, the waiting!—for the next thrust of virtual contact, but there was also passion and anxiety and hope and desperation and secret sharing between two damaged souls.

And none of it was funny.

*                                  *                                  *

As a postscript, I should probably mention that I received an e-mail from Clarissa about a year ago. She was attending vet school on an island in the West Indies. She just wanted me to know, she wrote. She described how it felt to drift off to sleep at night listening to the ocean, to wake up listening to the ocean, to walk barefoot on the white sands near the ocean. All that crap.

I composed my response as concisely as possible: Glad to hear it. Be well. But I couldn’t bring myself to stop there. What was the point? I asked her. Was there a point? Did any of it mean anything?

It wasn’t a rhetorical question. I really needed to know.

She got back to me in less than an hour. I wrote all about it in my diary, she said. I don’t want to re-write it all. Send me your address and I’ll send the pages.

I doubt I can successfully convey just how gratifying was the promise of a tangible letter. I might never see her again, but answers were coming. The pages, either heavily-bonded and fancy or thin and cheap, would be torn, neatly or in haste, from a diary bought at some high-end craft store or maybe Wal-Mart. The pages would be covered in tidy printed script or cramped cursive, written with ink from a pen she had received as a gift or maybe cribbed from a motel. A pen she had actually held in her small and almost chubby hands, which I remember being oddly and cutely out of proportion to her thin frame. The pages would come in an envelope she’d sealed with her own spit, the lipped fold of the envelope pressed shut with the tip of her finger. The letter would travel physically from an island halfway across the world. It would pass through the hands of uncaring strangers. One day, jetlagged and road-weary, this letter would arrive in my curbside mailbox. I would separate it out from bills and coupons. I would hold it in my hands.

Anyway. I’m still waiting.

Jonathan Rovner learned to write at Walnut Hills Elementary, just south of Denver, Colorado.  His work has recently appeared in the Indiana Review, Wag’s Revue, and the 2013 Best of the Net Anthology.

Awp 2014: Flash ‘Em

March 20, 2014 § 5 Comments

flashA belated AWP panel report from Alle C. Hall, on the panel “Getting Short-Form Nonfiction to Readers: A Publication Discussion”:

The place was packed.

Kelly Sundberg opened the panel with words worth my conference fee. She made the case that flash is too often and not thoughtfully enough categorized by length. Sundberg delineated four qualities differentiating flash from short fiction or nonfiction:

1.     Image.
Flash lacks space for explanation and multiple characters. Image is the way into the emotional experience.

2.     Compression.
Nix grammar & punctuation. Fragment good.

3.     Structure
Flash connects emotionally. Intuition is stronger in than in a longer piece. There, lean on structure.

4.     Title
Don’t just label it. Make those words do double duty.

Speaking next, Sarah Einstein, managing editor of Brevity, justified hotel costs by laying out what makes a submission work for the magazine

  • Brevity leans toward memoir over thinky.
  • For thinky-er pieces, try Slate.
  • “We are not the edgyist journal on the planet. Brevity is not usually shocky—raw sex and drugs.”
  • Sex and drugs? That would be a Pank piece.

Moving to what she sees too often, Einstein said, “Ten – 15% of submissions are set at a funeral or doctor’s office.”

  • “Those are the moment that hit the writer in gut … (but they do not necessarily) hit the reader in the gut.
  •  If writing about the loss of a loved one, write “the moment that you get it, that they are gone for good, and what you will miss. Write what you are doing at the time.”

Then came Creative Nonfiction’s Hattie Fletcher. Although CNF recently published several two-page essays, their tweet feature is where they do short. In the name of parallel structure, I thank Fletcher for covering my coffee expenditures.

Fletcher summarized a CNF certified-good tweet:

  • Tell a story.
    • You don’t have much room for reflection, but you must have a “my take.”
    • Find meaning.
    • You see a crazy person on the bus, and then another person says this.
    • Use the juxtaposition to convey observation.
    • Too many read like jokes, observations or description.
    • Or settle for describing a character.
    • The biggest challenge:
      • Get outside your head.
      • Don’t make your tweet cryptic.

The final speaker, Chelsea Biondolillo, posted a summation of her presentation here. Astoundingly, it includes a list of magazines accepting short nonfiction. To be clear, she is sharing what must have been hundreds of hours of research.

With this post, she is saving us all that time and all that rejection heartbreak.

The more I sift through the gifts of the panel, the less I want to poke fun at monetary value or highfalutin’ academia. I’ve been to plenty of commercial conferences. Not once did a writer make as selfless a gesture as Biondolillo’s. Not once did editors give as much submission information about a competing magazine as they did about their own.

AWP is a special experience. Thank AWP. Join. Return. Thank the presenters. Subscribe. Buy books. Donate. Today.

Alle C. Hall won The Richard Hugo House New Works Competition. Favorite publications in Creative Nonfiction, Bust, Literary Mama, Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and The Stranger (Contributing Writer). She blogs at About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children. Stop by. She’s happy to talk your ear off.

The New Yorker on D’Agata: Simply a Hack

February 11, 2012 § 12 Comments

Hannah Goldfield weighs in at The New Yorker:

D’Agata’s responses are, rather than thoughtful and collaborative, hostile and delusional. He sees himself as an artist, not a reporter—even though he’s written a reported story about something that very publicly happened in real life—and therefore completely exempt from the responsibility of fact-checking. “Hi, Jim,” he writes, in the book’s first e-mail excerpt. “I think maybe there’s some sort of miscommunication, because the ‘article,’ as you call it, is fine. It shouldn’t need a fact-checker…. I have taken some liberties … here and there, but none of them are harmful.”

There is, of course, comedy to be found in this set-up, at least for journalism geeks; Harper’s excerpted some of the choicest bits in their “Readings” section. D’Agata acknowledges that there are thirty-one, and not thirty-four, strip clubs in Las Vegas, but, he says, “the rhythm of ‘thirty-four’ works better in that sentence than the rhythm of ‘thirty-one,’ so I changed it.” When Fingal points out that Levi Presley, the subject of D’Agata’s essay, was not the only person in Las Vegas to commit suicide by jumping from a building on the day he did, D’Agata replies, “I think I remember changing this because I wanted Levi’s death to be the only one from falling that day. I wanted his death to be more unique.”

What D’Agata fails to realize is that not only are these liberties indeed harmful—even if only to the reader, who is trusting the writer to be accurate in his or her description of what exists or took place in reality—they are also completely unnecessary to creating a piece of great nonfiction. The conceit that one must choose facts or beauty—even if it’s beauty in the name of “Truth” or a true “idea”—is preposterous. A good writer—with the help of a fact-checker and an editor, perhaps—should be able to marry the two, and a writer who refuses to even try is, simply, a hack. If I’ve learned one thing at this job, it’s that facts can be quite astonishing.

.. This question, no matter how it’s interpreted—as a nihilistic sigh, or as an argument that all that matters are the broad strokes—is a royal cop-out. Altering and cherry-picking details is an easy, hollow game for a writer. The challenge, and the art, lies in confronting the facts—all of them, whether you like them or not—and shaping them into something beautiful.

Read more at The New Yorker

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