Can Confessional Writing be Literary?

February 22, 2016 § 47 Comments

Kelly Sundberg

Kelly Sundberg

By Kelly Sundberg

When I defended my MFA thesis—a collection of linked personal essays—one of my committee members, the only woman on my committee, said to me, “So many women have been traumatized on these pages. I don’t know women to whom things like this have happened. It seems a bit melodramatic.” I don’t remember how I responded. I remember how I wanted to respond. I wanted to say, “Is it melodramatic if it’s true?”

After the defense, on the way to my car, I called my best friend and told her about the comment, and about how much it had confused me. My friend’s response was that maybe that committee member was not the type of woman whose friends would trust her with their stories of trauma, and therefore, that was why the committee member didn’t think the stories existed. It never occurred to either of us that the committee member’s friends hadn’t suffered acts of gender violence. Based on our own (admittedly limited) subset of friends, but also on the statistics that show one in three women will be subjected to gender violence in their lifetime, the committee member’s friends having escaped gender violence simply didn’t seem possible.

At the time of my thesis defense, I hadn’t yet acknowledged that I was being physically battered by my then-spouse. That acknowledgment came later, in the form of an essay that was later anthologized in Best American Essays 2015. If this committee member read that essay, I wonder if she thought it, too, was melodramatic? All I know is that everything I described in that essay really happened. If it was melodramatic, it was still truth.

In her Boston Review essay, “Wounded Women,” Jessa Crispin writes, “I am worried about the implications of throwing the label ‘women’s pain’ around individual experiences of suffering, and I am even more uncomfortable with women who feel free to speak for all women. I worry about making pain a ticket to gain entry into the women’s club.”

I don’t know that pain is a ticket to any “club” that I would want to be a part of, but personally, I am worried about having to constantly assert my legitimacy as a literary writer, simply because I often write about my experience of trauma. I am worried about the notion that writing about trauma is somehow easier (or less than) other writing.

In all honesty, many of us have traumatic stories, and perhaps this is where the stigma originates—the easy access we have to our own experiences—but simply having the story doesn’t mean that we can write it well. As literary writers, when writing about our individual traumas, we’re still called upon to use the elements of our craft in a way that strives to move beyond the individual story, and instead, capture something universal, or offer something educational. When I wrote my anthologized essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” my goal was not to exploit my own trauma for personal gain. My goal was to show readers why I stayed for so long in a relationship that had become dangerous.

I had always been a literary essayist with an interest in complex structures, and I used the fragmented structure of this particular essay to represent the see/saw of love and violence that is symptomatic of domestic abuse. The essay went through many revisions and had multiple readers; It was hard work to try and write about a traumatic subject, while also maintaining a high level of craft.

In her essay, Crispin also wrote, “Suddenly women writers were being valued for their stories of surviving violence and trauma.”  This seems dismissive to me of the literary merit of these writers. The writers she describes—such as Roxane Gay and Leslie Jamison—are valued because they are excellent writers. They may have stories of surviving violence and trauma, but it is the ways in which they tell these stories that distinguishes them from other writers in the field.

When I sit down to write literary writing about my trauma, I am a writer first, and a trauma survivor second, but I am not ever not a trauma survivor, and as such, I am often interested in examining the roots and effects of my own trauma. Sometimes, I am interested in examining these effects in ways that might be considered therapeutic—that dastardly term that literary nonfiction writers hate. As a result, I have created a separate writing space—my blog—where the writing is not about my craft, but rather, about my story. The blog is where I talk about my journey of recovery, and the blog frees up my emotional space and intellect, so that I can approach my literary writing with more remove and thoughtfulness. Like most literary writers, I do not believe that literary writing should be therapeutic. When I teach creative nonfiction workshops, I tell my students that the therapy needs to come before the writing.

In her essay, “The Memoir of Recovery (Not Discovery),” in Kirkus Reviews, Debra Monroe laments the current state of memoir, where she posits that “The memoir became therapeutic: a narrative offshoot of self-help.” On many levels, I agree with Monroe. In one instance, she describes an editor who responded to her manuscript with “I just wish her childhood had been worse!” I can imagine how frustrated Monroe must have felt by that response, but when my own memoir proposal went out on submission, I received a somewhat different response.

One editor, after having read my blog (which very openly addresses the lingering effects of my domestic abuse) said that she didn’t feel the ending of my story was happy enough (I’m paraphrasing here). Another editor, with whom I spoke on the phone, asked me if I thought my memoir would have a “redemptive ending.” I answered that, of course I did. After all, I got out of the marriage. What could be more redemptive than that? But I added that, if someone is looking for a Lifetime Movie-esque redemptive ending, they won’t find that in my story.

In the end I was able to place my book with an editor who seemed to respect my work and my aesthetic, and who I trust will not pressure me to change my actual, lived experience in an effort to get more readers.

Truthfully, with the editorial feedback we received, Monroe and I were both victims of the same problem—that of memoirs being posited as “recovery” and “redemptive.” In this way, even though, like Crispin, Monroe laments our culture’s infatuation with traumatic experiences, she also differs from Crispin. Monroe thinks the problem is with the focus on recovery. Crispin thinks the problem is that women are valued for their wounds. To Crispin, I would say that I am not grateful for my wounds. To Monroe, I would say that I am also not redeemed by them. My wounds are simply a part of my existence. Still, because I am interested in an examination of the self, my wounds have, naturally, become a subject of my writing.

Part of what I appreciate about the writing of Leslie Jamison and Roxane Gay’s writing is the way they both actively resist portraying their wounds as redemptive. Instead, they address the wounds honestly, sometimes brutally, and with all of the tools in their arsenal that true literary giants possess—beautiful language, interesting structures, nuanced examinations of culture, and novel forms of presentation.

With my own writing, I seek to approach trauma in the same way. The story is important, but it must also be written with craft, and with nuance. I have no desire to always write about trauma, nor have I always written about trauma, but I am fatigued by the notion that narratives of trauma are rewarded simply on the merits of the struggle that one has endured. I had a traumatic experience, and perhaps that did gain me entrance into a club—a club of women’s pain—but that traumatic experience did not make me a literary writer. My hard work and my craft are what have, hopefully, made me into a literary writer.


Kelly Sundberg is Brevity’s Managing Editor. Her essays have appeared in a variety of literary magazines and been listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2013. Her essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and a memoir inspired by that essay, Goodbye Sweet Girl, is forthcoming from HarperCollins Publishers in 2017.

On Writing Damage: Zoe Zolbrod and The Telling

September 7, 2016 § 2 Comments

Zoe Zolbrod portraits by Elizabeth McQuern Oct 2015 -1b.jpg

Zoe Zolbrod (photo by Elizabeth McQuern)

Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir, The Telling, is a moving account of childhood sexual abuse and its aftermath. Zolbrod describes, not just the abuse, but her subsequent sexual relationships, and she refuses to offer easy answers.  The end result is a nuanced and compassionate examination of the ramifications of sexual abuse. Brevity’s outgoing managing editor, Kelly Sundberg, interviewed Zolbrod about the notion of sexual abuse as damage, writing as therapy, and how to craft a good story out of such difficult material.


KS: I’m interested in the ways in which you discuss “damage.” You write that, based on the narratives of sexual abuse that you had been exposed to, you knew that you were supposed to be damaged, but you weren’t really sure what that damage was. It seems like, in a way, you maybe even performed that damage. I wonder if that performative element of “abuse as damage” came into the writing of the book?

ZZ: Yeah, I did experiment with performing the damage, especially in my late teens and early twenties. I implied to certain people that I had some messed-up but interesting depths because of this early experience of mine. I also performed not being damaged to other people—projecting a confidence that the abuse had no effect on me. In both cases, I was aware even at the time that my words and outward attitude weren’t matching what I actually felt, which was more of a muddle.

One reason I wrote was to analyze both the muddle and the performances—where did I get those roles from, what purpose did they serve for me? In the writing, I wanted to work against performing—against giving the expected narrative, speaking the expected lines. I tried to get as close as I could to my actual feelings and motivations. I was nervous about stating them at times, because the last thing I want to do is provide fodder for those who argue that childhood sexual abuse is not that bad, or to undermine others who are wrestling with the legacy of being abused. But it was important to me to untangle my own responses from the narratives about abuse I was absorbing. Of course, writing a book is also a kind of performance, so at times worried that in my effort not to perform damage, or perform lack of damage, I was performing authenticity, and thus not being authentic after all. There’s a rabbit hole!

KS: When I started writing about domestic violence, a man wrote me on Twitter and asked me if I was worried about being labeled a “domestic violence writer,” and I balked at that. It does seem like, too often, women who write about traumatic events get labeled as trauma writers, and this can be dismissive of their craft. Your situation was different than mine, in that you already had a novel published, but were you ever worried about being reduced to your story rather than your craft as a writer? If so, how did you deal with this or fight back?

telling-cover-3.jpgZZ: I don’t know if you feel this way about domestic abuse, but even outside the literary sphere, I worried about being pigeon-holed anytime I mentioned that I had been sexually abused as a child—that that would become the most important fact about me in people’s eyes, and that they’d think they knew things about me.

And then, yeah, within the literary sphere there remains a tendency both in the industry and among readers to regard certain subjects as less literary than others, especially in writing by women. Like, if the topic can be found in the recovery aisle, or if it merits advocacy, then it’s not literature. (And vice versa, too. If it’s too literary—nuanced, structurally or linguistically complicated—there’s not going to be a place for it in the recovery aisle.) I encountered this attitude firsthand. Not by everyone. Not even by most people. I have a really supportive writers group. But even a few comments can sting. The way I fought back was by refusing to let it affect my writing, by continuing to believe in my project.

Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay “On Pandering” came out after I had finished work on the book. I recognized the dynamic she was describing, and I recognized my younger self in her accounts of watching boys do stuff, and in sometimes unconsciously trying to fit a mold, or to avoid another one. I thought it was a really smart and accurate piece. But it made me realize that I had grown out of this mindset; I had refused to pander in writing The Telling, and I was willing to write off a certain audience if that was the consequence.

This probably has something to do with my age—I’m 48. I care less about impressing people, especially men or anyone viewing literature through a male-informed perspective. Also, I have a certain luxury. I didn’t achieve the kind of early success that Watkins did, and I make my living outside the literary world, so I can write what I want (if I can find the time) and still support myself and my kids no matter what the market or the guardians at the gate think. And anyone who actually reads my book can see it’s written with care. I’ve been gratified and relieved that the reviews have noted this.

On the flip side, I’m surprised by how willing I am to be seen as an expert on child sexual abuse, and to speak on it outside literary circles. I mean, the word expert can still give me flare-ups of imposter syndrome, but to much less of a degree. I want to raise awareness on this topic among a general audience, and I don’t care how this overlaps or doesn’t with my literary reputation, such as it is.

On a related note, I’m wondering how you feel when you’re asked whether writing your book is therapeutic, or told that it must be therapeutic.

KS: I actually wrote about the idea of therapeutic writing in a Brevity blog post here, where I ascertained that there should be a difference between therapeutic writing and literary writing (although I don’t think there is anything wrong with therapeutic writing). I’m further along in my own memoir writing process, and the truth is that the writing has been therapeutic. I’m delving deep into why, on a cultural and personal level, the domestic violence in my life occurred, and in the process, I’m learning some hard-earned lessons. How could that not be therapeutic?

I’m not writing the book for the purpose of my own therapy. I have therapy for that. And who would be interested in my own therapy anyway? But yes, I’m finding that writing the book is having the side effect of being therapeutic.

When it comes to this subject, it seems like there are two responses: strangers who say, “Oh, your writing must be therapeutic!” as though that’s a good thing. And writers, such as Jessa Crispin (who wrote about this subject in her essay “Wounded Women” at the Boston Review) who seem to think that therapeutic writing can’t be literary.

What are your thoughts on the subject of therapeutic writing? How have those thoughts affected or constrained your process?

ZZ: Oh, I remember when that Jessica Crispin piece came out. I was like: welp, guess there’s another prominent critic who will never like my book.

In some ways, I’m having a similar experience to what you describe. I certainly didn’t start out writing a memoir as therapy, and would have been insulted at the suggestion. Especially since, as I mention in the book, I’ve been reluctant to go to actual therapy all my life. I have some hang-ups around it and about the self-help aisle in general. But now that The Telling is out in the world and I’m out in the world too, talking about it, I can see that the whole process of writing and publishing has been enormously therapeutic.

Five years ago, just describing what I was working on when someone asked was difficult for me. The first time I wrote about being sexually abused as a child—just a few sentences as part of a larger piece—I felt sick to my stomach in the hours before the essay went live. I was shaking. I had so many fears and so much defensiveness. Now, I can talk about the subject comfortably and confidently with anyone. And I feel lighter, just generally freer—both more in control but also OK with not being in total control of, for example, how people see me. These days, I sort of want to shout from the rooftops: It’s OK if your writing is helping you! It doesn’t mean your writing is not good or smart or complex!

Part of the stigma against therapeutic writing seems to be the assumption that if you’re writing for personal discovery, you’re not concerned with craft. You’re just blurting things out. But I think for those of us who are writers, the choice of a word, the form of a sentence, the rhythm of the prose, the juxtaposition of images, these are part and parcel of making meaning. I had done a lot of journal writing over the years. But it was writing with the intention of publishing a literary book that really led me to a breakthrough.

KS: I think that the intention is what matters. We aren’t in control of what happens while we’re writing the book (whether therapeutic or not), but we are in control of our goals for the book, and how we plan to achieve those goals. One of your goals in the book was to portray a more nuanced view of what can happen post-childhood sexual abuse, and I don’t believe that you ever use the terms “victim” or “survivor.” Was that a deliberate decision? If so, what was your reasoning there?

ZZ: It was deliberate. For one thing, I wanted to be thoughtful in my use of language. The terms victim and especially survivor were coined with intention, and have had helped shape the public conversation around this topic in important ways, but at this point they get thrown around reflexively—almost the way we refer to tissue as Kleenex, or a bandage as a Band-Aid, we refer to someone who experienced sexual abuse as a victim or survivor, and we drag along the connotations without examining them.

But I’m also uncomfortable with the connotations themselves. The words imply that someone is either continually undone by the abuse (victim) or over it, beyond it (survivor). They don’t allow for nuance. Can’t we discard these black and white terms and still acknowledge that sexual violence is wrong? Right when my book came out, I read this amazing essay, “The Forced Heroism of the ‘Survivor’” by Parul Sehgal. I thought: hey, she encapsulates my whole book in two pages. But instead of feeling scooped, I felt admiration and relief. Here’s a choice quote, though there’s so much more:

“Those who have faced sexual violence are so commonly sentimentalized or stigmatized, cast as uniquely heroic or uniquely broken. Everything can be projected upon them, it seems — everything but the powers and vulnerabilities of ordinary personhood.”

I’d like The Telling to be part of a larger movement toward asserting the personhood of any of us who’ve experienced violation, which means we have to leave room for a variety of responses to it, that can change over time.

KS: Wow, I love that sentence: “Everything can be projected upon them, it seems—everything but the powers and vulnerabilities of ordinary personhood.” That really resonates with me, and I very much sensed that vulnerability of “ordinary personhood” coming out in your book. Part of that vulnerability was also in the way that you described other people in your book with such nuance. You were kind to your characters, but you didn’t shy away from honesty. How was it writing about people with whom you are still so close? Did you have a way of dealing with the psychology of that? What was your process? For example, did you show your parents the book ahead of time? Or let them wait until it came out? (Personally, I’m not going to show anyone in my memoir the book until it’s ready for publication because I don’t want to be influenced by their thoughts).

ZZ: The first year or so I was writing this book, I didn’t get much done. I’d carve out a precious writing day and end up spending most of it with my hands suspended over the keyboard, stock still as I worked through the emotions and ethics about being public with this material. It’s my story, but it involves so many others. I ended up setting a few rules for myself: to include only what I absolutely needed to about others even when there were additional compelling details; to avoid recounting or implying others’ thoughts and feelings as I’d do when writing fiction; and to offer what privacy I could, especially in the case of people who had their own histories of sexual violence.

I also made a list of three people that I planned to let read the manuscript before it was published, and one person I planned to contact just to let her know the book was coming. My situation was different from yours in that I didn’t have a publisher while I was writing it, so I told myself that until publication was guaranteed, I was just going to follow my rules and write freely within them.

Framing things that way really helped me, and at some point, I was able to set my concerns aside and write relatively quickly. I did get my dad’s explicit permission to reveal a couple things, but he was on my short list of pre-publication readers, and he declined, saying he didn’t want his reaction to influence my editing. That was generous. Another friend on the list read and had some issues, which was hard for both of us. I tried to address them. I went through the book one last time before it was typeset to make sure I was being as fair and judicious as I was able to be, I changed all the names and a few identifying details, and then I held my breath and let it go.

The book’s been out for several months now, and I’ve heard from a number of people from my past and extended family members. It’s not all been frictionless, but overall, the reaction so far has been better than I’d hoped. On some level I’ve been holding my breath for years about this, and now I can exhale.

KS: What are you reading right now? Who are the writers you can’t put down?

ZZ: I’m reading Gina Frangello’s novel Every Kind of Wanting. I got to know Gina when we were in graduate school together in the 1990s, and she’s been my great friend, colleague, editor, and writing group co-member since. I’ve read the manuscript for this novel at least twice already, but her characters have so much depth there’s always something to discover. When she was finalizing the book, she kept lavishing praise on the skills of her editor Dan Smetanka, so he must deserve some credit for what a taunt, page-turning read this emotionally dense (but also funny) book has become.

Before that, I read José Orduña’s memoir The Weight of Shadows—which I highly recommend to any memoirist who’s combining research and personal narrative— and Chloe Caldwell’s I’ll Tell You in Person. I’ve loved her writing since I read the first essay of hers in The Rumpus so it’s pure pleasure to have more. Melissa Febos is one of my favorite nonfiction writers, and I feel super grateful and fancy to have an advanced copy of her essay collection Abandon Me to read next. I just picked up The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison at the library. I’ve been dipping my toe into fantasy and science fiction lately, for the first time in decades. I still can’t get into William Gibson, but I really liked The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.

KS: Finally, what’s next for you? In your writing life? Your editing life? Your life-life? How do you plan to move on from this massive undertaking?

I’m restarting work on a novel I put down during the process of publishing and promoting The Telling. (It’s set in the near future, thus my new interest in science fiction.) To free up some time and mental space for that, I’m stepping down as co-editor of the Sunday Rumpus.  I work a full-time day job in educational publishing and am raising two kids, and sometimes I’m not sure how I’m going to write another novel on top of all that. It takes a level of compulsion, and it’s hard to balance compulsion with my desire to be present in my family life and also just to get enough sleep and relax sometimes. Those things are important too! But having done it before makes me more confident that somehow I can do it again. I feel so much more engaged in the world when I’m writing. And also when I’m talking about writing. Thanks for asking me these questions, Kelly

Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Stir Journal, The Weeklings, The Manifest Station, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Rumpus, where she is currently the Sunday co-editor.

Kelly Sundberg is a doctoral candidate in creative nonfiction at Ohio University. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Guernica, Slice, Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and a memoir based upon that essay is forthcoming from HarperCollins in 2018.



On Loving the Writing

October 1, 2013 § 8 Comments

By Amy Wright

amyMy recent Brevity essay, “The Bedroom that was a Beekeeper’s House” was prompted by a Cowbird “Saga.” 

Cowbird is an online community of storytellers that arose during the momentum of the Occupy movement, providing the 99% with a forum to put faces with those numbers destabilized by the economic inequality of large corporations.

The first “Saga”—as I remember it, since the themes are no longer organized chronologically—was the “Occupy Saga,” and gathered stories of confessional Wall Street “low-rung” financial advisors, Red Diaper Babies-turned grandmothers, Oakland strikers, new “Migrant Mothers” en route across country to look for work, etc.

The “Working Saga” that followed takes Studs Terkel’s idea international, collecting anecdotes from retired principals of South African schools, Mexican painters, Norwegian photographers, Kalamazoo briefcase and accessory store owners. Thus, even as the media was answering a context-driven call for connection, it was already transcending the movement, inspiring stories of separated lovers, perseverance, failure, and adversity that are timeless and global

The strength of this community, as I read it, is that Cowbirders “love” each other’s posts. The distinction between loving a piece, commenting on, retweeting, liking it, or giving it a thumbs up may seem insignificant, but I would argue makes all the difference. For, in love—unexpectedly perhaps, depending on your definition—there is much freedom.

I have loved pieces I don’t particularly like, because I admire the writer’s intention or revelation. I have loved pieces for risks the writer takes rather than literary merits I tend to favorite. And perhaps most significantly for me, knowing only love can return after publishing a post bolsters a writer for the kind of fortitude required to take on such intimate themes as the “Bedroom Saga” that inspired my Brevity piece.

I aspire to create some such haven in my classroom—however briefly—by having students read aloud 2-3 paragraphs from their essays before they turn them in. On that day, students receive only applause, praise, encouragement, for the next class period they will need to open themselves to  feedback from their peers during workshop.

Receiving criticism is not a moment in the writing process I have tended in years past. Though I have long asked students to share a section of their strongest work with their live audience, I have only recently begun to pause and linger before allowing discussion to say “Yes!”—allowing that feat to be enough (even if their 2-3 paragraphs net only three pages of their required eight). Later we will discuss suggestions for the required revision, but I want them to revel and remember reveling in having written—for only that joy will sustain the best of them to return to the page the many times it takes to crystallize meaning, image, insight, closure.

Might all writers be similarly fortunate to find readers and editors (and teachers!) to help them at every level.

My Cowbird “Bedroom Saga” piece, including a photograph of the bedroom/beekeeper’s house is online at:

On Writing For the Ear

April 7, 2009 § 16 Comments

John Bresland talks about recording “Future Ex Buys Pajamas.”

[Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from a presentation John Bresland gave at this year’s AWP Conference in a panel on the radiophonic essay. We’re very pleased to include it here so that neither the audio essay nor the wisdom gleaned from its creation are lost to all except the 80 or so people crammed into a stifling hotel conference room that winter’s morning.]

Some years ago, back when Clinton still presided, I found myself in a Parisian lingerie boutique with my then-girlfriend. And I tried, as all men must, to appear harmless. As though every thought that passed through my head weren’t despicable. As though I didn’t want to roll up every Frenchwomen in sight and all this lingerie de femme into one silky Ding Dong and swallow it whole.

I was in my mid-twenties, then, living in Montmartre near the crypt where the Jesuits took their first vows of chastity. I was going to write fiction, speak French, learn to be a better man — all fantasies, but I tell you this: that lingerie was real. Expensive. And not especially comfortable for Then Girlfriend to wear. So instead of the Aubade Fleurs de Pommier bra-panty-garter ensemble, she bought pajamas. And the relationship never recovered.

When Brevity accepted “Future Ex Buys Pajamas,” an essay about that experience, I emailed the editor to ask if he might like to post the attached audio version. The editor never replied. Either Brevity didn’t take a shine to my monotonic voice — fair enough — or literary magazines, even those born online, don’t yet have a slot for literary multimedia (two exceptions, of course, being Blackbird and Ninth Letter, who issue regular calls for it).1

I wanted “Future Ex” to be experienced as audio because that’s where it belonged. It’s a confession. And I knew while writing it that when we speak of memoir in such a way, when we brand it confessional, we’re effectively shelving it among lesser art forms. But I was nonetheless drawn to the form — it worked for St. Augustine. And really, who would hesitate to lend their ear to a penitent? Part of what makes confessions seductive (and uncomfortable) is their intimacy. To try to bottle that, I wrote the essay orally, speaking the words as I typed. No sentence was set before I could say it in a way that felt whispered in the dark.

This meant, as a practical matter, that I had to write shorter sentences, fewer clauses, less decoration. And I was mindful of using a spoken idiom. A more difficult question, though, was how to create a soundscape, a radiophonic voice and texture that furthered that intimacy.

Here’s where I started. The first paragraph of “Future Ex,” spoken slowly, into a pretty good microphone, an ElectroVoice RE20:


Nothing special here. I’m no actor, and certainly no vocal performer. I tell myself this is a good thing. Radio personalities, with their practiced vocal modulations, skirt the edge of condescension. No danger of that with my flat vocal.

But how to create a sound that feels close? One way to get there, I thought, was to route the vocal through a telephone speaker. The tinny texture of telephones is, in a way, the aural equivalent of 8mm film, intimate, flawed, private, lo-fi. Here’s that same audio played back through a handset:

Nothing dramatic, but still — a decidedly lower-resolution timbre. A voice transmitted by copper wire. It’s a simple manipulation, maybe even something of a gimmick. But out of this simple distortion a persona, albeit a slightly creepy one, does begin to emerge.

I also wanted to get some music going. Even if music sometimes feels like cheating. I remember Ira Glass mentioning once, several years ago in an interview, that he wanted to stop using music in This American Life. He feared music was a crutch that concealed a story’s rough seams. But when I tuned in last week, he was still playing that same Trainspotting song. And he should. Because it works.

It works because music reaches us in places words cannot, and it reaches us at higher levels of intensity. That’s because music and sound, unlike language, are visceral. English words set in print, no matter how well written, can never be enjoyed by someone outside the language. Music, on the other hand, doesn’t care what language you speak.

Alex Ross writes that music takes a direct route to the senses. Which is why you must like — unless you’re dead inside — the song “Dancing Queen.” Intellectually and aesthetically, you may hate ABBA. But the melody bypasses our coolness filters, our various hipster-defense mechanisms, and floods the cortex with aural cracksmoke. The term “guilty pleasure” was invented to account for this disparity between music we want to like (Weezer) and music we really like (the Rocky theme).

The next step was to beat the bushes in search of a tune. I started by auditioning dozens, and then hundreds, of songs, voicing the text aloud while doing so. It’s fairly easy to find music that sounds decent. But finding music that’s perfect is difficult. Here’s that same vocal paired with a track by Aphex Twin:

I like this. Or thought I did. Until I submitted the project to the Missouri Review’s audio contest. The judges yawned. And I know one reason why. In trying to create an essay that felt intimate or overheard, I was seduced by music that sounded great, but didn’t advance the essay’s central idea. Aphex Twin, while beautifully produced and performed, is, in effect, too musical, too lush, and bends my confession toward Hollywood.

So I turned to music of another sort, a composition by the great composer and accordianist, Pauline Oliveros. Among her specialties is the drone. Here’s a clip of Oliveros and her collaborator, Stuart Dempster, from Deep Listening, a stunning track entitled “Lear”:

Pauline Oliveros makes recordings in hyper-resonant locales — caves, cathedrals, underground cisterns. And she uses all kinds of crazy instrumentation — trashcan lids, lunch boxes, whatever. One peculiar quality to her music is, after a few minutes, you almost cease to hear it. Her compositions fall away until what you hear, or think you hear, is an amplified version of your own consciousness. “Lear” is less a musical performance than an articulation of what it feels like to be alive. Which makes me think my short essay, twined with Oliveros, is moving closer to completion.

I should add, here, that the idea of drones underpinning and extending the reach of language is nothing new. The great radio artist, Joe Frank, has been layering his works with masterful drones and loops for decades, to great effect.

This is “Future Ex Buys Pajamas.”

Excerpt of ‘Lear’ courtesy of the Deep Listening Band, New Albion Records.

1 Imagine my chagrin, sitting in that hotel room between a cute girl and a wise-looking professor-type with elbow patches on his sport coat, everyone chuckling at Brevity‘s possible folly! Many thanks to John for allowing us to remedy such an oversight. Hmm, blog as penance: I got dibs on that essay. —M.E.

The Indignity of Confession

October 24, 2019 § 4 Comments

By Sarah Boon

I have always struggled with finding balance in the personal essay, between telling too much and not telling enough, between exposing myself versus keeping myself under wraps. In 2017, Jia Tolentino wrote in The New Yorker that the personal-essay boom was over. “There’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers.” At Slate, Laura Bennett wrote disparagingly of “solo acts of sensational disclosure that bubble up and just as quickly vaporize.”

Some writers agreed. Over at LitHub, Lorraine Berry quoted Virginia Woolf’s grumpiness about the proliferation of personal essays:

Almost all essays begin with a capital I—‘I think,’ ‘I feel,’—and when you have said that, it is clear that you are not writing history or philosophy or biography or anything but an essay, which may be brilliant or profound, which may deal with the immortality of the soul, or the rheumatism in your left shoulder, but is primarily an expression of personal opinion.

Berry added,

Woolf urged writers to stop writing crappy book and theatre reviews and put something real on the page…Tolentino is telling writers to stop writing personal essays where the “I” on the page has an experience that cannot be related to the greater structures in which we’re operating…We need to treat the personal essay with more dignity than we have done. There are infinite glimpses of human truth to be had in personal writing, but it really is okay not to publish every single thing you write.

This line resonated with me, as I find that too many authors think it’s important to publish everything they write, and in the process they end up publishing overly confessional essays.

Other writers were firmly opposed to Tolentino’s essay. Susan Shapiro fought Tolentino’s statement that it’s mostly women writing these essays, asking “Is it uncouth for a woman to admit to wild adventures without proper repentance while making good money?” Here on the Brevity blog, Zoë Bossiere wrote that “to compare the personal and the confessional is a common false equivalence, and a great underestimation of all that first-person nonfiction writing encompasses.”

I agree with Bossiere that the issue isn’t the personal essay itself, but how it is defined. As Emily Fox Gordon points out in The American Scholar, there is a difference between essays that confess and those that confide. “What’s always most important about a confession is its content; what’s often most important about a confidence is the relationship it creates or furthers.” This is exactly how I think that personal essays can be divided, and it’s the latter that makes the most impression on readers.

The personal essays that Tolentino was calling “dead” were those that confess.

Recently, Tolentino published Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, her first book of—you guessed it—personal essays. But these nine chapters are heavily researched, transcending the confessional to discuss how women exist in today’s web-obsessed world. The personal is used to draw the reader in. In “The I in Internet,” Tolentino describes her use of the web when it first started, then pivots her viewpoint to engage with several books outlining how we use the web today, and are increasingly merging our professional and personal lives online. She makes the personal political by focusing on how the internet is built to distend our sense of identity, how it encourages us to overvalue our opinions, maximizes our sense of opposition, cheapens our understanding of solidarity, and destroys our sense of scale.

Through the essay, we not only discover one writer’s personal history with the web, but a detailed discussion of the internet’s role in present day society and of social-media addiction. Tolentino herself is not immune to the siren call of social media, writing, “Still, on occasion, I’ll shut down my social media blockers, and I’ll sit there like a rat pressing a lever…masturbating through the nightmare until I finally catch the gasoline whiff of a good meme.” While deeply personal, the essay connects with readers by expanding our knowledge of the negative aspects of social media in the context of the author’s personal experience. Her addiction is an example, not the whole point.

Tolentino’s research extends to her own history. In “Reality TV Me,” about being on a reality show in high school, she goes back and interviews the director of the show and the other cast members. By interrogating their experience and combining it with her own memory of the events—and her current perspective on them—she pulls together an engaging essay on how her reality TV experience “simultaneously freed me from and tethered me to self-consciousness by making self-consciousness inextricable from everything else” and was a precursor to her life on the internet, where personal and professional blur into a single online presence.

Ultimately, Tolentino proves that the personal essay—the confiding rather than the confessional—is not dead. Writers like Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kathleen Dean Moore, Sarah Menkedick and others produce work that brings the reader in with personal details, then opens up to broader topics and ideas. These are writers who definitely treat the personal essay with dignity, and I hope to count myself among their ranks.

Long live the personal essay!


Sarah Boon‘s work has appeared in Outside Magazine, Catapult, The Millions, Alpinist Magazine, Longreads, LA Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books, Literary Hub, and more. She is currently working on a book about her adventures in remote field research and blogs at Watershed Moments.

A Review of Cat Pleska’s Fearless

August 13, 2019 § 2 Comments

fearlessBy Elizabeth Hyde Stevens

In the months before becoming pregnant with my daughter, I got into a stranger’s car and drove out to the Berkshires to attend an Ayahuasca ceremony with a Columbian shaman named Taita Nelson. I was writing a novel about the possibility of psychic healing after my mother’s death from Lewy body dementia. My hope was that I might reconnect with my mother. My brother had told me I was the bravest person he knew. But the truth is that I am far from fearless.

“To my knowledge no one has discovered a gene for self-determination,” Carter Taylor Seaton writes in her essay “The Girl in the Mirror” in the literary collection Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment. “I don’t think they will, either.” Fearless, published in April by Mountain State Press, is lyrical, sprawling, and forthright, essays mostly, with the occasional microburst of fiction or poetry, all featuring women bravely making their way in the world. “Some challenges,” Seaton writes, “present themselves, like coping with an alcoholic husband or ending life support for your oldest son, and you grapple to overcome them. Others you willingly accept.” After playing the Virgin Mary as a pregnant high school junior and having four children before she was twenty-three, at fifty, Seaton willingly took on the challenge to become a writer and marathoner.

With over thirty formidable writers contributing, Fearless creates a celestial-chorus-like effect, like reading #YesAllWomen tweets or Scary Mommy Confessionals. Yet, unlike the fragmentary moments of online confessions, Fearless provides the context, intelligence, poise, and perspective that only literary explorations can give. The works are short—two or three can be read in the time it takes to read a novel chapter—but long enough to show ongoing-ness of women’s badassery. Brimming with rebellion, duty, loss, fear, motherhood, divorce, poverty, hedonism, hope, and faith, the stories show women as intrepid, infragile, heroic, each writer mounting the audacity to become the hero in her own life.

West Virginians abound, although the stories reach to New York, Los Angeles, Florence, and beyond. Editor Cat Pleska, a seventh-generation Appalachian, grounds Fearless in the peculiarity of the mountains, coal mines, poverty, and pickup trucks where plucky women refuse to do as they are told, and, instead, blaze their own trail: the righteous victory of rebuffing a boss’s harassment, finding the confidence to run away from home or start a global business. Many of the stories are too complex to describe in pull-quotes: the older-self-shocking confidence of a woman giving birth “the natural way.” The pain of losing the love of your life to cancer, even though you divorced him many years before.

Daleen R. Berry writes of the moment she found out—while getting an ultrasound on her right breast – that her husband died, setting off a protracted legal disaster. M. Lynne Squires writes of a rape in which she was not sure if she should hope her roommate comes home to save her or hope to avoid being found in such a shameful state, later vowing “that moment, that experience wasn’t going to define me.” In “Star Child,” editor Cat Pleska writes of the larger-than-life friend from Stitch-and-Bitch meetings who believed in magic, flew her out to Paris, and breezily brushed off the greatest marital betrayal, a tribute to a quixotic, vibrant life snuffed out in an instant.

In “Daughter,” Rajia Hassib denaturalizes and ironizes the task of “raising” a fearless woman. Wracked by mom guilt for failing her daughter, the protagonist anxiously tries to teach her graduating senior to ride a bicycle so she won’t embarrass her new friends at college. All the while, the fully capable teen girl texts friends, likely mocking her, with both thumbs. What else, the story suggests, do we forget to teach young women before they go off into the world?

In one of the rare nods to politics in Fearless, the poem “Women’s March Washington, By God, D.C.,” by Kari Gunter-Seymour, paints a picture of a mounting women’s movement in Appalachia:

Their husband’s mouths gaped,
They board the bus, middle of the night,
Cardboard signs and children in tow,
Their bodies a poem of spine
And gut and cicada music.
Some have never before left the county.

Majestically, Sheila Coleman-Castells imagines a new post-coal, post-poverty future for her chosen homeland where “expectations, stigmas, and inertia” don’t have to define our lives. Her lyrical invocations resonate for her fellow Black Affrilachian women and for women everywhere: “I have to show her, while young, that she has no need to adhere to outmoded cultural ways of being that require her to get ‘permission’ from anyone to be her authentic self. No one who ever asked permission from others would be allowed to let their talents roam free.”

Ultimately, Fearless is not about the lack of fear, but rather about writing a hope for a better future—a hope resounding right now in all parts of the nation where women reside (and vote), but perhaps nowhere as lyrically as the blooming mountains of Appalachia—the hope that, as Maryland Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri says in “In Every Dream…”: “They no longer need to imagine.”

I didn’t see my mother in the shamanic ceremony in the Berkshires, but I saw powerful internal landscape of loss that helped me let go of my biggest fears. I saw a rose bloom out of my womb. And then I saw my mother’s hair—her thick, charcoal-black, fluffy 1980s-blow-dried follicles sprouting up over mountains, fields, rivers, streams, oceans, and continents all over the earth. I will forever be grateful to have had the courage—and the bravery of women before me—to see that dream.

Elizabeth Hyde Stevens is the author of the pushcart-nominated story “Wolf Memoirs.” Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Salon, The Awl, The Millions, Rolling Stone,, and Fast Company. She is the author of the nonfiction book Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson which was praised by INC, The AV Club, Brain Pickings, WGBH, and The Boston Globe. Stevens has taught writing at many schools including MassArt, Brooklyn College, Gotham Writers Workshop, and Harvard Extension School. She currently teaches a writing and research seminar at Boston University exploring the future of video games.

On Elevator Pitches, Persistence, and Reclaiming the Recovery Story

September 14, 2018 § 6 Comments

Tessa pictureBy Tessa Torgeson

This is the way I dreamed an editor’s reaction to my book’s elevator pitch:

  • A butler instantly appears holding a scroll chiseled with my contract, including a generous monetary advance.
  • An old-fashioned ink and quill materialize so I can sign the coveted contract.
  • A skywriter writes my name over a packed stadium. Preferably a true Nirvana reunion show because my book single-handedly brings Kurt Cobain back to life!
  • My name in flashing lights on a marquee.
  • My book on the shelves of ______ (Insert local chain book retailer here. My small North Dakota city didn’t have independent booksellers).

This is a bit of an exaggeration, of course. I know that writers are not rock stars and long ago shed the romantic notions of my unicorn-emblazoned girlhood diary. But I had high hopes.

This is the way it actually happened:

  • not according to plan.

A recent writing workshop I attended offered a chance to meet with editors in the second week, I buzzed with excitement at the prospect. I was buoyed by the past week at the workshop surrounded by peers, visiting writers, and workshop leaders who were equally passionate about creative nonfiction.

In opening remarks to the session, the editor said that he preferred written proposals because they allowed for complexity, nuance, and depth. I understood his point, but still ached to share. I knew that the verbal pitch is all bones, no meat. I hope vegans can excuse me for the meat metaphor, but the beauty of an idea often lies in the tenderness, the fat, and the juicy center.

Despite his hesitations, the editor kindly agreed to listen to our verbal pitches and acknowledged the difficulty of chiseling an entire book down to a 90-second verbal pitch.

Because I was nervous, my pitch was short and I omitted key points. I told him that my memoir is an exploration of heroin addiction and recovery from my first-person perspective.   

The editor’s shoulders slumped, his jaw slackened, his eyes turned dull. What he said next is still  singed into my brain: “The market is flooded with those kinds of memoirs. How is your book different?”

I knew that he was trying to help me polish and sharpen my proposal, but I felt flatlined, discouraged. I elaborated about what made my book unique. Most recovery memoirs focus on the 12-Steps Alcoholics Anonymous perspective, but I focus on nontraditional recovery with a controversial opiate replacement medication called Suboxone.  I also include reportage about nontraditional recovery communities in Minnesota.

A few more of the female class members delivered their pitches. Then a male workshop member delivered his tentative pitch, explaining that he didn’t like writing about his own life. He was planning instead to write about his sister’s experiences as a heroin addict.

The editor’s spine straightened. He made eye contact. “That’s fascinating! It sounds so French…The opiate epidemic is definitely a timely topic.”

When the editor asked if we had comments or questions, I summoned the courage to respond.  “I’m not trying to attack my fellow workshopper’s topic because there is value in different perspectives, but I feel sort of dismissed. I don’t understand why a man’s pitch speculating about his sister’s heroin addiction from her perspective would be more appealing than a woman’s first-person perspective with a similar experience?”

I didn’t want to burn bridges or sound ungrateful for the opportunity to be at this writing and publishing institute. The directors, visiting writers, and my peers were all gracious, inspiring, talented, and passionate. Yet I felt the urge to speak.

I’ve noticed that literary publications are quick to dismiss first-person addiction and recovery stories, assuming they are riddled with tropes and narcissism, and are overly confessional. These publications seem more likely to accept essays that examine addiction from a removed, distant, and objective perspective. I understand and appreciate the value of journalism and have read many impressive fact-based essays on this topic. Yet I particularly value reading essays that blend first-person with reportage because the writers truly understand and grasp the subject.

The editor responded in an apologetic manner and showed more interest in my book by asking more questions, which I appreciated. When I got home, I posted a status on Facebook about how dismissals by folks like the editor, while perhaps unintentional, are sexist. I also looked at the list of books published by the editor’s house and it was dominated by male authors.

There is a stigma linked to addiction, resulting in people often being more compassionate toward those with other illnesses. When someone dies of a heroin overdose, I’ve seen comments like this on social media: “survival of the fittest, it’s their fault.” People somehow feel free to make such cruel and thoughtless statements, treating addiction like a choice. I never chose to be an addict, but I do choose to tell my story.

After my Facebook post, my peers and the workshop director sent me words of support and even thanked me for speaking out. It lifted my spirits. I try not to be overly dependent on social media for validation, but I do lean on it for support because writing about addiction is hard. Thankfully, there are many fantastic trail-blazing writers who have fought this stigma and written kick-ass memoirs and essays. Some of my favorite include Melissa Febos, Lidia Yuknavitch, Porochista Khakpour, Maia Szalavitz, Elissa Washuta, Amy Dresner, Marya Hornbacher, Chelsey Clammer, and Nick Flynn.

This experience made me realize that we write not for money, name recognition, sky writers, or flashing lights. We write to fight the stigma, to let others know they’re not alone.

I no longer imagine my name lit up on a marquee. Instead, I see myself connected to a glowing string of lights with other writers who are shining, illuminating the once shadowy, taboo subjects of addiction.

Tessa Torgeson is a collector of words, polka-dot stuff, general awkwardness, and (bad) habits in Minnesota. Her writing has recently appeared in The Fix, The Star Tribune, Manifest Station, and other places. Embracing alternative recovery, she is currently writing a book that weaves memoir and reportage about addiction, recovery, harm reduction, and being a Midwest spinster from her non-traditional perspective. If you want to hop on the feelings train, follow her on twitter @tessa_tito


To Page Or Not To Page?

October 4, 2016 § 6 Comments

Brevity's Social Media Editor (L), pictured with a more circumspect member of our staff.

Brevity’s Social Media Editor (L), pictured with a more circumspect member of our staff.

Officially, I’m Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. What that means is I blog here, tweet, help boost the signal on Facebook posts and tweets by/about Brevity‘s journal and blog, and keep an eye out for trends in the literary internet, many of which I report back to you, our Gentle Readers. I also maintain my own social media–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and an occasional personal blog post.

I’m often asked–and I see writers agonizing about–what social media we “should” have. In particular, whether it’s worth it to have a Facebook page for our “author self” as well as a personal profile.

If you’ve already decided Facebook isn’t for you, or you don’t enjoy social media at all, feel free to skip this post. Go write something. But if you’re wondering about Facebook pages vs profiles, here’s the skinny:

Facebook pages are only useful if your agent insists you have one and you have ten thousand likes. Even then, 90% of your followers won’t see 90% of your posts, unless you pay.

Sad, but true. The way Facebook’s algorithms function (as of October 2016) makes pages without paid advertising more or less useless. People will only see your posts if they visit the actual page, on purpose. (Notice that the Brevity “page” is actually a group, which gives us more engagement with Gentle Readers, but requires more time to monitor and maintain.)

You may want one anyway. Facebook pages are useful if you are very concerned about online privacy. Your agent or publisher may insist you have one. And if you do, you may as well copy-paste all your writing-related statuses over there. It’s nice to refer people to, and to show off all your reviews in one place. About every six months, ask all the people you know to like your page, so that you gradually build an audience of people who have volunteered to hear from you. Other than that, leave it alone unless you’re embarking on a specific social media campaign–it’s one more thing sucking your time away from writing.

You don’t need a Facebook page if you’re OK with less privacy. As far as I’m concerned, Facebook is my public face. It’s not a private sharing space. I don’t friend back everyone who friends me, and I don’t post anything I’m embarrassed to share with the world. Right now, I’m also small-time enough that connecting personally with readers is still doable and desirable. For me, this goes hand in hand with the idea that the internet isn’t really a private place, and if I’m ever a big enough deal to get paparazzi-d, they’ll find anything I ever put out there. So it might as well be words I chose.

If you choose to use your personal Facebook page as your public face, don’t post things you don’t want strangers reading/seeing, and check your privacy settings for anything you want to limit to friends or a specific list. Remember that you don’t have to friend everyone back and clog your own feed with the rainbow-pug memes of a thousand strangers–when someone friend-requests you, they become your follower and see your public posts. It can be worth it to spend 5-10 minutes liking and commenting on the posts of people you don’t know well, but who you would like to have become your readers and your far-flung connections–your posts show up more in the feeds of people you engage with. Every day, think a little more about crafting your posts so that you’re revealing what you choose, and you’re pleased to have a stranger see them.

Yes, this can feel a little fake. A little dishonest. Even creepy. But I’m a confessional nonfiction essayist, and my brand is personal me. And “personal me” is a curated, purposeful presentation of subjects I genuinely care about and engage with, much like a “personal” essay. Every time I post, I’m practicing writing to be read. Every time I post, I’m aware that people I don’t know personally are reading it–and I’m pretty happy about that.

Allison K Williams is (clearly) Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines. She’d love to see you on Facebook!

The Didion Fan

July 14, 2016 § 9 Comments

Kim Steutermann Rogers author photo

Kim S. Rogers

A guest post from Kim Steutermann Rogers:

Today, I tell myself, I will not scroll Facebook as if I were cram-reading War and Peace. I will not say yes when the wildlife volunteer coordinator asks if I’ll go to the beach to check on a cute new seal born just that morning. I will not slip out when a text alerts me that the Laysan albatross chick I’ve been watching since it hatched five months ago is standing on bluff above the sea, flapping its wings, about to fly off over the horizon, not to be seen again for three to five years. Today, I tell myself, I will get some writing done. Yes, I will.

As I write this by hand in my notebook, a cheap DECOMPOSITION BOOK with line drawings of safari animals on the cover, I look up. Staring at me from across the room is the free-floating head of Joan Didion printed on an oval piece of cardboard that is glued to a flat tongue-depressor-like stick. A hand fan. I picked it up at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference in Los Angeles this past April after a particularly heated session—the room, not the conversation—because, well, I am a woman of a certain age.

AWP: Think 15,000 academics and creative types crammed into the Los Convention Center. Think tweed jackets with suede elbow patches. And yoga pants. Think purple hair and tattoos, ripped tights, and Chuck Taylor Converse throwback basketball shoes. Think apple-cheeked children with crispy clean MFAs. And puffy-eyed, word veterans in need of coffee and, later in the afternoon, beer—or something stronger—from the beverage vendor at the south end of the book fair. Think best-selling authors, award-winning poets, and top journalists from around the country. Think the rest of us—with stories and books and essays and poems and clouds in our eyes and on the tips of our tongues, eager to share with anyone who will listen. I may be a woman of a certain age, but I fall in the last category.

zz didionJoan Didion is staring at me from across the room where I stuck her in a coffee-mug-cum-pencil-holder after a vigorous use of fanning one spring day when spring winds stalled in their tracks, replaced by summer’s stagnant-dog’s-breath-hot-air. A few degrees change in temperature does not go unnoticed, because you know, I am that age, that effing age.

Joan Didion’s visage sits just to the left of my computer screen. When I am sitting at my desk, presumably writing, I can see the Grande Dame of Literary Journalism out of the corner of my eye, her mouth set in a line and her makeup-free eyes narrowed on me. Damn. It’s the eyes.

Dame Didion is the toast of nonfiction writers across the United States. She was required reading during my MFA studies. She’s one of the first to be named when calls go out for lists of great essayists. Hardly an AWP—if any—goes by without her name prominent in a panel title.

I first read Didion as I was trying to craft my own writerly voice, and I fell hard. Major writer crush. Here was a wordsmith with whom I felt a kinship. A journalist. But not. A memoirist. But not. A personal essayist. But not.

In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion writes, “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle.”

I have more than a few notebooks lined up across my desk, packed in plastic boxes in my closet, all to be thrown away upon my death, as I’ve made my best friend take a blood sister pact with me.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Amen, Dame Didion.

I mainlined every essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Then, The White Album.

“What I most appreciate about Didion’s writing is that she witnesses her world. Her writing may be about her, but it is anything but confessional,” I wrote in an essay after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

But, now, some years later, the truth is I’m tired of Dame Didion. Oh, not her writing but of we writers who would bow on bended knee and kiss her writing ring, if her hand were ever proffered and if such a thing as a writing ring existed.

Wait. Does it?

I’m sick of the Didion worship that goes on in literary and MFA circles. Because I want her for myself. Because it seemed once my bright-eyed love for her blossomed, she went all Baader-Meinhof on me, and every other student of nonfiction writing adored her, as well. My secret, favorite writing mentor was mine no longer.

Joan Didion levels her steady gaze at me from across the room. She could have taken a pair of scissors to her hair and gave herself that haircut, I think, wispy bangs, and blunt, chin-length hair.

But here’s the thing about Didion: She got it done. Something like five novels, a dozen books of nonfiction, half-dozen screenplays, and a play. The woman wrote. She sat down and wrote. I can see it in her makeup-free eyes. The determination. The discipline. She’s a reminder to tap into my own determination and discipline. It’s there. Somewhere. I know it is.

Mentors. Muses. Inspiration. We tend to think it’s their words that help us. But at this time, apparently, it’s not the words but the face of Joan Didion I need. The bad haircut, thin set mouth, and those examining eyes remind me to just do it. Sit down, and write.


Freelance journalist, Kim Steutermann Rogers moved to Hawaii with her husband, two dogs, and twelve boxes of belongings in 1999. “We’ll stay for one year,” she told her family and friends. That was 17 years ago. Now, Kim shadows scientists into rain forests, volcanic craters, and throughout the uninhabited atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to learn more about Hawaii’s endemic—and often endangered—flora and fauna. But, most days, she sits on her bum and attempts to churn out words appropriate to the science and place and people of it all—and tells herself she should exercise more. Kim holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Missouri School of Journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is at work on a book about Mark Twain’s Hawaii and the psychological concept of place attachment. You can read clips of her work and her blog at and follow her on Twitter at @kimsrogers.

Toward a More Expansive Definition of Memoir

March 18, 2013 § 4 Comments

Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop at The MoMAWriter/teacher/editor Steven Church has posted a slightly revised version of his excellent AWP panel talk on the ‘stealth’ memoir, and it is well worth the read. Here’s an excerpt, followed by a link to his full essay:

I tell myself and my students that it’s often better to begin by looking away from the personal, by starting not with confession but curiosity. I did this with my book [ The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst ] because I believed it would make it a better book and because I knew the material was there anyway, fueling much of what I was writing about. You don’t have to see the engine to know it’s running. But whether I wanted to write about it or not divorce was a big part of 80’s culture. It was one kind of apocalypse that defined those years—the end of one reality and the beginning of a new, somewhat alien world; and as such it made a good literary device. I also tell my students that their responsibility as a nonfiction writer is to be an ethical and efficient parasite. If you’re going to use the personal, the confessional to explore some larger ideas, your responsibility is to do it for very good reasons and to do it well, with the minimum amount of collateral damage. In the 80’s divorces were as hot as parachute pants, Def Leppard, and post-apocalyptic fantasy. A book about that time and place needed that thread as a kind of universal touchstone, a hook for the reader of memoir who expects some personal stakes right up front; and I knew that the challenge was one of balance.

 I want to believe that we can also think of the expectations of memoir more generously, more broadly than the confessional or traumatic. I want to believe we can think of memoir in terms of the author’s personal connection to the ideas in the book; that the form, at it’s best, can use personal experience to gather up the distinct threads of a book and bring them together into a narrative of thought that is more compelling and nuanced than a simple summary of the crazy shit that happened. Perhaps memoir can be about a place, a state, or about an entire generation and less about trafficking in humiliation or confessing some pain, loss, or sorrow. Perhaps like all literature it is aiming to capture the sublime confluence of these and other human experiences through the synchronicity of ideas and emotions.


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