On the Food-gasm, or, Why We Feel So Passionately about “Regional” Dishes

December 14, 2015 § 4 Comments

Mad Feast mech.inddA guest post from Matthew Gavin Frank:

After seeking the advice of my friends and colleagues on the early drafts of my book, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food (which, among other things, engages a food typically associated with each of the 50 U.S. states), and after giving early readings from the book, I was bemused by the ferocity with which folks reacted to my choice of dishes—both the anger of those who took issue with my choices, and the glee of those with whom my choices gelled.  People routinely told me that my choices missed the boat, and people routinely told me that my choices “nailed it,” as if there were really a boat to miss, or something to nail; as if there were a singular choice and an attendant narrative, and it was my duty to pick it in order to miraculously satisfy everyone’s passion about which food is most identified with a region.  I began to wonder where this passion and pride came from, as I was told time and again (in not so many words) that I’d either stupidly interrogated or beautifully confirmed readers’ personal intimacies with both food and state, and the legitimacy of the memories which are leashed to said intimacies.

Matthew Gavin Frank

Matthew Gavin Frank

Few things excite the memory like place and food—the cities of our birth (sometimes where we still live), our first houses and the meals we ate there, with people.  These are the chambers in which, and through which, we forged our identities, our relationships to the world.  That’s why home is where the heart is.  That’s why, according to biological anthropologist Adrian Jaeggi, our brains evolved to equate food with love—with the gustatory care taken to nurture us, nutritiously, toward adulthood.  If we’re to believe neuroscientist John S. Allen’s claim that “The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting… [triggering] deeper memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body,” then if someone else decides to engage the things that ornament our “internal states” (read: specific dishes as associated with specific places), this can feel like a trespass, a commentary not only on food and region, but on us.  What else can we do but become defensive, as we’ve grown dependent on our memories of these things, however faulty—the mashed potatoes steaming on the teaspoon, the shaky hand of the mother bringing it to our lips, the way the red Naugahyde kitchen nook squeaked as we shifted and chewed, the way the weather moved the very specific trees outside the window—as being so “internal” and ours that they are above another’s interrogation, a comfortable old pair of shoes.

Of course the idea that good art aims to agitate rather than confirm, and a responsible audience agrees and wants, to a point, to be trespassed on, can be thin salve for many.  As a means of self-preservation, memory often insists on itself—its rightness, its own intricately codified and filtered perception of the facts.  And this is when memory can become dangerous—when it wants (as it inevitably does) to claim ownership of events, which extends to the places in which they occurred, and the adornments (edible and otherwise) therein.  Those foods heaped onto those long ago plates were certainly once actual, but have since been rendered hazy and girdled by the sort of memory that insists of the rightness of the hazy and girdled thing, equating the haziness with a new actuality.  Any confirmation of this rightness furthers a sense of communion, however rickety, justifying our memories’ suspicions about ourselves, and any threat to this rightness will compel the memory to defend itself, oftentimes passionately.

On entitling a story or essay, the writer Charles D’Ambrosio states, “The privilege of place is almost like a law of primogeniture, with the title inheriting the entire work, and along with that legacy comes the burden the implied promise, of carrying the weight of the piece to the end.”  Choosing to associate a particular dish with a particular state is, in effect, an act of titling, and thereby, in some measure, a fool’s errand, saddled with the task of inheriting, and carrying the weight of the memories of all who deem themselves cozy with dish and state.  The historical detritus responsible for the ways in which we see ourselves is comprised only of these memories, and if their story is faulty, so then, we might think, are we.  No wonder then that, in order to avoid even the mildest crises of self, the knee jerk response to another’s perceived intrusion on these things we hold so precious—the components of the engine that drive our self-identifying—is often passionate dismissal or rejection, and an affecting of offense.

Food, after all, is the most sensual component of our survival (few people speak of water- or air-gasms).  Certainly, the mouth is our most apparent anatomical vulnerability.  There’s no flap of skin to protect it, no screen door.  It hangs there gaping and inviting, takes in mosquitoes when we motorcycle, seawater when we swim.  To look at us, the mouth is where we broke off from the matrix.  Even our navels, our original tethers to nourishment, had the good decency to seal over.  The mouth, more than any other part of us, it seems, is also our connection to place, to planet, and to each other.  A baby maps out a complex and individual schematic of the world first by putting things (found around the house, found throughout the region of its birth) into its mouth.  It is via the mouth that we shape and explain ourselves to others, bind our identities to language, profess our treatises on love and hate, lust and chastity, joy and despair.  We kiss with the same mouths we eat with.  We make of the mouth a gateway, both literally and metaphorically.  The kiss is the initial and intense sign of affection between us, involving the touching and twining of these open vulnerable parts of ourselves, the precursor to the business of intercourse, the touching of those other parts.

Food—oftentimes carefully chosen and lorded over— is what we willingly allow into our affectionate mouths, after instinctually weighing the benefits and consequences (to both health and hedonism).  These are the dishes we allow access to our tongues, gums, hard palates and throats, before swallowing them into our other shadowy internal corridors.  This is our private territory.  Of course, the things we let pass (which sustain us and also give us pleasure) will command more of our attention, attachment, a latching onto of our brains and hearts.  In eating is a leap of faith and, in turn, an act of intimacy; a conversation—sometimes with ourselves, sometimes with others.  Sometimes this conversation dovetails with argument, which is also holy, also essential.  It’s easy, though, to confuse the act of eating with the thing eaten, and to attach the intimacy to the corn chowder or deep-dish pizza itself.  In this way, we often mistake—via the intellectual/emotional hiccups bound to memory (personal, cultural…)—our participation in a universal intimate act for rarefied expertise.
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Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, among other books.  In his storied past, he ran a tiny breakfast joint in Juneau, Alaska, worked the Barolo wine harvest in Italy’s Piedmont, sautéed hog snapper hung-over in Key West, designed multiple degustation menus for Julia Roberts’s private parties in Taos, New Mexico, served as a sommelier for Chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand in Chicago, and assisted Chef Charlie Trotter with his Green Kitchen cooking demonstration at the Slow Food Nation 2008 event in San Francisco.

Movement and the Essay: Josey Foo

May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Josey Foo

Josey Foo

Josey Foo discusses how she came to write her exquisitely minute essay “So Little” in the new issue of Brevity:

I suppose this piece sprang from questions of who I am. I certainly can’t grasp the who of me, I seem to lie and cheat in the moment before moving, then try to move in a forthright way, and the movement can seem like a runaway train even over the single step. The decision to move changes my life, then the movement changes it again. A kaleidoscope of changes happens to me as I proceed and I’m evolving as a person. The movement is the poem, the humanity that goes into moving is the significant story, then the movement again is the climax or ending. I am a bundle of contradictions in a single move.

Use of the third person was necessary because this piece happened to be too close. Use of the third person is for comfort. The person (me) feels like an intruder in the space between the chair and the window. Her motivations are all suspicious. She feels she has grown into something that must stay still and is distorted otherwise. At the same time she’s just trying out her body, hanging her body this way and that to feel strengths and weaknesses and wondering whether any of it is real.

I wrote a book a few years ago with the dancer/choreographer Leah Stein that were poems and notes on dance, and performed with her and her dancers in Philadelphia in 2012. I had to go up on stage and walk about, reading poems from memory as the dancers simply moved. They didn’t second guess their movements. They approached their bodies and movement with joy while I was filled with panic and just wanted to stop and think the whole thing through for one moment and then do it again for the next.

 

How to Make a Fool of Yourself at AWP

February 25, 2014 § 7 Comments

Suzanne Roberts

Suzanne Roberts

Guest Blogger Suzanne Roberts offers some excellent and amusing advice on how to behave at the VIP parties:

You may think it’s as easy as drinking too much gin and falling off a barstool at the lobby bar. But it isn’t. That’s standard fare at the annual AWP conference. No, to make a fool of yourself at the AWP takes some planning, some research. And a way to sneak into the VIP party.

Here’s what you do. Wait until the last night, when you are so exhausted you can barely remember your own name. Then find someone who has an actual invitation to the VIP Party. Did you know that such a party exists? Of course you don’t! You weren’t invited. And as it turns out, that’s for a good reason. But lucky for you, your friend was. But the guards—yes they have actual guards at this event and they are not poets, so you can’t offer them a cigarette and sneak by them—they take their job of protecting the famous writers from the likes of you very seriously, and your friend has more than one plus-one. In fact, he has five. Though your friend is good looking, is it possible that he has that many dates? Because the five-to-one-fantasy appeals to poets and non-poets alike, you and your plus-five package get into the party, and the guards start to wonder if they themselves should start writing verse.

First things first: sashay over to the buffet and free bar and gorge yourself on shrimp cocktail and smoked salmon, carrot sticks and chardonnay. You will have been too busy grazing to notice, but your friends have left the party.  But by all means, don’t leave the party yet! Stay until long after the Pulitzer-winners and Poet Laureates are long gone. Stay until the guards indicate that it is time for you to stop with the shrimp and go get your coat. But first stuff your purse with bread sticks, carrots, and celery. You are your mother’s daughter after all, and in her words, they are just going to throw it away.

In the dim light (note the dim light) of the coat check area, you will spot a man who looks vaguely familiar. You try to place him and then decide, Why, that’s Nick Flynn! You have never actually met Nick Flynn, but you saw him give a reading at a literary magazine party in a dark bar the night before (note both words: dark and bar). Turn to Nick Flynn and tell him, “I just loved your reading last night.”

“Thank you,” he will say, pulling on his coat.

Because you don’t want to leave this exchange so quickly, and you are full of shrimp cocktail courage, you say, “My husband loved your book,” which is not just flattery, it’s actually true. Your husband read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City in one night.

“I’m so glad,” he says, looking at you from the threshold of the door.

“Oh yes,” you continue, stuffing your arms into your own coat. “He wouldn’t come to bed. He loved your book so much. He couldn’t put it down. He sat on the couch reading it all night.”

At this point a woman at the coat check says, “Hot damn. Poetry over pussy.”

You correct her, “No, Suck City,” meaning, of course, the memoir. This is an honest mistake. Nick Flynn writes poetry, too, though you can’t imagine your husband staying up all night reading poetry. You are pretty sure he hasn’t even read your last poetry book.

“Yeah, I guess it might have been suck city, if he hadn’t chose poetry over pussy,” she says.

“No, not the poetry” you will say, still trying to clarify, “Another Bullshit Night.”  The woman laughs, but you swear you see her mouth the word “Turrets” to Nick Flynn.

This little repartee is not enough! You must follow Nick Flynn and dominate his attention for the entire walk through the indoor mall and back to the hotel lobby. And when the small talk about the party begins, make sure to tell him how you snuck in to the VIP party. He will look at you with a strange look, but not nearly as strange a look as when you say, “I just loved Suck City. I mean I love the poetry, too. But Suck City was so great. I’m looking forward to Suck City on the big screen.”

When he speeds up, desperate to catch up to his friends, make sure to match his pace step for step because you aren’t done.

Then tell him, out of breath because of your swift clip, “We…have…a mutual friend.”

“Who’s that?” He will look doubtful. Maybe not so much that you have a mutual friend but that you have any friends at all.

You tell him the name of your mutual friend. She is your colleague, and you know her to be one of Nick Flynn’s very best friends.

“I don’t think I know her.”

At this point you will hit—maybe punch is the better term—Nick Flynn’s arm and say, “Of course you do!”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“You blurbed her book!” Make sure a carrot or breadstick falls from your purse when you say this.

“No, I didn’t.”

You will be adamant because you are sure that Nick Flynn blurbed her book. You have seen it right there on the back cover. How could he forget? “You did so,” you will say, “plus, I’ve seen you two together on facebook.”

You are met with a puzzled look.

But don’t give in. Rather than to take in the facts before you, be sure to stick to the facts in your head. Refuse all the signs. So Nick Flynn will have no other choice but to assent. “Maybe I do know her,” he will finally say. “Maybe I met her at the Atlantic Center of the Arts?”

“You see!” You are triumphant. Later you will tell your colleague about this little exchange, and she will say “Please tell me you didn’t say my name.”

You will have to admit that you did.

Nick Flynn shakes his head and says “Maybe I’ve had too much to drink.”

You have read Nick Flynn’s books, and you know he is a recovering addict, so you think, What? Nick Flynn has been drinking? O-no! But you say, “Me too” to cover your bases. Something in you knows that even if it isn’t true, you should say you have had too much to drink. Way too much to drink.

You continue to walk together, and every so often, you ask questions that Nick Flynn seems unable to answer, or you exclaim “Suck City” in reference to his memoir, and each time he looks at you like you are deranged, like you are a woman capable of sadistic ritual, bizarre and vicious crimes. Like he wants to escape but doesn’t want you to know he’s fleeing, just in case you will follow him. Which you are already doing.

And then Nick Flynn tells you he has to find his husband.

“Husband?”

“Yes.”

“You’re married to a man?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

The last you heard, Nick Flynn had married the actress Lili Taylor. But rather than question this, just think: Well things sometimes change.

When you finally arrive back to the hotel lobby, your friend Rodney will see you talking to Nick Flynn, and he will come up, introduce himself, and ask him, “How did Obama ask you about the inauguration? Did he call you or what?”

And you will turn to look at Nick Flynn and his face will suddenly rearrange itself. Not familiar because he was in the dim bar reading about his father the night before, but familiar for another reason—this was this face that filled the TV screen on inauguration day. And all of a sudden, you will be at a loss for words. But then you say this, which makes things worse, not better: “I didn’t know. I mean, I’d forgotten. I mean that you were the inaugural poet. But your poem, it was just great.” Your friend Rodney will look at your with a wrinkled forehead, his mouth opened into little frowning O, and you will smile and say, “Super great,” the word great trailing off, swallowed by the din of the lobby.

At that, Nick Flynn—now Richard Blanco—will make his escape. He will say, “I need to find my husband outside.”

You will think, Ah yes, husband. Of course he has a husband, as your brain reshuffles itself.

You will then try to explain what just happened to Rodney—an abbreviated version—and you will say, “Oh my God. I have to go outside and find him, to explain what happened.” You make for the lobby’s revolving door, but Rodney pulls you back, saying, “Oh no you don’t. I think you’ve said enough already,” to which you can hardly disagree.

flynn and blanco

Flynn and Blanco

Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (Winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four collections of poetry. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. More information can be found on her website: www.suzanneroberts.net

Food Bloggers: Call for Nominations

November 18, 2010 § 3 Comments

Attn: Food Bloggers: upcoming Food Issue (March 2011).

Creative Nonfiction magazine is looking for interesting, true stories that focus on food, including restaurant reviews; tales of meals gone awry; secrets, tips and kitchen short cuts; confessions from cooks, chefs and/or servers; an examination of the kitchen life; and so on.  To be used in the upcoming Food Issue (March 2011).

To nominate, you’ll need to know the title or specific URL of the post. Nominate your own work, or that of someone else. Nominate as many posts as you like, though the good folks at CNF mag ask that you not nominate the same post multiple times.

The deadline for nomination is 11:59 PM EST, Monday, November 29, 2010.

Nominate at: http://www.creativenonfiction.org/blog_nomination.html.

Contests, Glamour, Food, Immortality

June 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Glamour’s Seventh Essay Writing Contest

If you have an inspiring story about a life changing event, an obstacle overcome, a relationship or passion that’s defined you—then we want to read it!  You could win $5000 and a meeting with a top literary agent.See complete rules for details

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18th Annual SiWC Writing Contest

Non-fiction: maximum length 1,500 words.

Prizes: 1st: $1000 and anthology (per category). Honorable Mention(s) $150 each.

Deadline: September 10, 2010

Fees: $15 per submission

http://www.siwc.ca/contest/2010

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Memoir (and) Competition

Prose limit: 10,000 words maximum. Graphic memoir limit: Must fit on no more than twenty 7” x 10” pages. Narrative photography limit: Up to 5 images.

Deadline: August 16, 2010

http://memoirjournal.squarespace.com/contest-details/

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Creative Nonfiction Immortality Competition

Essays must be unpublished, 5,000 words or less and written on the subject of Immortality.

Deadline: August 6, 2010

http://www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/submittocnf.htm

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Creative Nonfiction Food Competition

Essays must be unpublished and consist of 5,000 words or less. Submissions must be true stories that incorporate or involve food.

Prizes: 1st: $1000, 2nd: $500

Deadline: September 3, 2010

Fees: $20

http://www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/submittocnf.htm

In Praise of the Light-Footed Indie Publisher

April 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

Jay Nicorvo, in a recent Guernica essay, offers a convincing examination of what is wrong (and right) in publishing these days, and begs to differ with Ted Genoways’ recent essay on “The Death of Fiction.”  Nicorvo’s argument, in brief, is that the big NYC houses have lost their connection to readers, while limber, light-on-their-feet” indie publishers see nothing but opportunity in the new media new market.  He makes good sense, and give us hope.

Read on:

These days, editors at commercial publishing houses … no longer know how to reach the reader. Old media had a direct line to the audience that bought books, newspapers, and magazines. Publicity and marketing departments knew where to effectively (if not cheaply) spread the word about forthcoming titles and upcoming issues, expecting to get out what they put in. They’d print a few hundred or a few thousand galleys, mail them first-class to reviewers, watch the reviews roll in, and count the sales. But reviews no longer sell books. New media is the internet, and publicity and marketing departments have little central control over the flow of information … And so what do editors do? They cling to what’s working, if not working well — blockbusters. The dominant, dysfunctional business model for movies has been adapted for books. And this is why more authors like John Edgar Wideman have had enough; he’d rather self-publish and have a larger say than be hamstrung by a system favoring quantity over quality.

It’s the Ted Genowayses of the world, editors at literary magazines, university and independent presses, who still … (choose) those manuscripts which, to the best of their subjective judgment, are really the prettiest as they see them. And while we’re still in the recesses of the Great Recession, even as retirement funds and university endowments begin a gradual rebound, university-affiliated publishers are feeling particularly pinched. But the more limber, light-on-their-feet publishers—those not tied to state institutions funded by tax revenue—the indie publishers mission-driven to publish literature, they’re the ones surviving and even thriving, thanks to changing, cheapening technology and the preferred tax status that their missions afford them. This, the privileged position of the first degree, may be a main reason why the incoming editor of The Paris Review is leaving a storied commercial publishing house, and an imprint thought to be a last commercial bastion of the literary novel, for independent publishing.

… The best writers write because they have to, but the best editors edit because they want to. It’s the editors, not the writers, who need encouraging. Editors need to change what, and how, they acquire. And what better encouragement for change than a terrible economy? Or, in the words of Rahm Emanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” If such a crisis brought about the restructuring of the Detroit auto industry, aided by the desperate implementation of available and developing technologies, it can usher in the restructuring of New York City publishing.

The Power of Failure in Memoir

January 10, 2018 § 11 Comments

zz YellowstoneBy Jacob Little

Recently I have been translating a book of poetry by the inimitable Antonio Gamoneda. I was nervous when I began, having never attempted any kind of literary translation before. During, I am enveloped in the engaging challenges, the uncommon nuances, the wordplay. And after? I am obsessed with each small failure. I can’t stop thinking about my choices:

Was I right to lean towards meaning over rhythm? I don’t think I got the diction right. I never did get all the connotations of “mosto” in there. Was it okay to translate “ácido prúsico” as “DDT”? Or “Una mentira luminosa” as “a neon lie”? Am I erasing the culture of the original? I kept Spanish in my translation—Will an English reader know that “madre” means “mother”? Will they be able to translate “dulzura” from context as a term of endearment?

These, to me, aren’t just empty obsessions. I am trying to carry the meaning to a new audience across a long distance. I am making trips back and forth, each time with a bit of water in my hands, and almost all the water keeps slipping through my fingers. My failure matters not just because I owe it to Gamoneda to get his words right. It also matters because I want to give the reader the same experience I had when I read his poems for the first time.

Of course, translating my experience for a new reader is equally impossible. But I want readers to experience what I have, to truly understand something about me, in the same way that I strive to know others. But, if I go by this high standard, then I must admit—I have never even begun to tell such a truth in an essay.

I’m not talking about lying. I’m not even talking about the inevitable hiccups of memory, or the limited space on the page, or the purposeful selection and ignoring of sensory details, people, or motivations. I’m talking about translating experience into words, life into story. I’m talking about trying to write an accurate representation of the nuances of who I was, what I was thinking about, what I believed in, what I experienced, and everything else about me, my life, and my situation that bled into the moment I’m writing about. I’m talking about inexplicable differences in biology, experiences, and environments, how language can never account for these things.

After all, I can never explain my behavior, what I ever wanted or believed. Words can only be shadowy placeholders for my real-life experience. Like when I tried to translate mosto from Spanish into English—so much gets lost in translation. Attempting to explain the nuances of what this single word means (not just in Spanish, but also what it means to me, what it meant to the author) to anyone else would eat up this whole page and still fail. Each word we put down gets somewhere near the mark, but never exactly hits it. And each little failure adds up and up and up until we are left with a final product where our failures tower over us. Where we finally start to realize the depth and breadth of what we have not accomplished, what we never will.

It’s like when I go hiking and camping in Colorado each summer. I take pictures of all the spots I love most. Places that shake through me like a thunder clap. But when I get home and look at the pictures, they’re almost unbearably two dimensional—they can’t possibly recreate that place. Even when using a wide-angle lens, or using a 360-degree feature that shows in precise detail exactly what is around me, I simply can’t make that mountain appear on the screen. No one will ever see the mountain I saw.

The picture can’t make the sky big enough, can’t make it arc over my head into infinity like the sky did for me. The picture can’t recreate the deep brown of the earth, the sharp sting of the white in my eyes. It can’t give you that inconceivable depth of silence or that smell of a hard winter melting. If you went to that exact same spot yourself, you couldn’t see it. I wouldn’t be able to see it if I went back—it would be a different mountain.

And more than that: the picture can’t tell you about my long, desperate, 18-hour drive to get to the foot of that mountain. The endless, lonely hours behind the wheel with only a vague destination. The questions running through my mind; what are you doing? Why don’t you pull over and sleep? Why isn’t anyone in the passenger seat? And a million other questions there aren’t words for. Neither the picture nor this description can hope to explain why I went there, what I was looking for, whether I found anything when I arrived. (And that’s only partially because I don’t understand it myself.)

A picture can’t reconstruct the awe I felt upon arrival. The immense gratitude, the overwhelming grief. It doesn’t show what I was experiencing behind the camera, where I was both wrecked and renewed, shattered and remade.

Instead of that recreation, that incredible, enormous truth, all I can do is produce more and more words that don’t do any of it justice.

Perhaps this is something most writers know instinctually. I might know it, too, but I have tried and tried and tried to narrow the gap. To find words that got me just a little bit closer to what it was like. But the constant collapse used to plague me. I think that this obsession might be madness, though. I think I must learn to embrace the gap. After all, as Christopher McCandless wrote in what were likely his last words, “happiness is only real when shared.” And I’m starting to think that maybe the happiness he was talking about wasn’t just about sharing company or common experience. I think that it might come from the imperfection of that sharing; our inability to ever have any common experiences; our happiness comes from our brave and continuous attempts to relate—to understand—in the face of inevitable and enormous inadequacy. I think that maybe a profound happiness is the result of our eternal failure in communicating or truly sharing our experience, even if we are all looking in the same direction.

Where my sharing fails, where everything I write and say falls short of the kind of communion and communication I seek, I must trust that my attempt, my essaying again into failure, will result in someone picking it up and filling in the gaps in ways they too could never articulate. Not even to me—not even to the person who gave them the broken words in the first place. I must trust that someone will lovingly take my failure and turn it into something that lives and breathes and, if I’m lucky, maybe even saves them in the same way that the mountain saved me.

But that’s not quite right either. What I’m trying and failing—again—to say is something like this: I don’t think the mountain saved me after all. I think I saved it. From no one making the effort to understand any part of it or grasp a piece of its immensity. From being trapped in two-dimensional photos, in half-concealed symbols, in inept approximations. And I think it’s likely that no writing has ever saved you. That you were the one doing the saving. That the very act of saving something else is the thing that saved you; those holy moments where someone tells you about a profound experience, and you nod and say, I have experienced something like that.

Maybe that’s the real secret of memoir, of literature: it will always fall short. It needs to fall short, so that a reader can take something new and real out of the hopelessly broken words. So that they can know a mountain that I will never know. So they in turn can start to share their mountain with someone new who will see their own mountain. And on and on and on.

It needs to fail so we can stand at the foot of the mountain and tell it, “I see you.” And the mountain will know we can’t, not really. But maybe it’s the attempt that will keep on saving us.
_____

Jacob Little is the Managing Editor of Brevity and a PhD student at Ohio University. His recent nonfiction is published or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Split Lip Magazine, Gigantic Sequins, and Yemassee.

The Year of the Writer

December 21, 2017 § 33 Comments

Vintage sepia photo of young girl with dark curly hair sitting at desk holding a paper and looking thoughtful

Next year definitely the Booker longlist

How was 2017?

OK, a dumpster fire, yes, but how was your writing in 2017? Because now is a great time to consider what you got done. Not scold yourself for what you meant to do and didn’t, but genuinely take a moment and sit with your accomplishments.

Did you write an essay or a paragraph or a sentence you’re really proud of?

Get a piece accepted? Submitted to places you want to be accepted?

Help another writer with insight or feedback or supportive critique?

Make it to a workshop or a class or a conference or a coffee date with another writer?

Read a book you really loved that showed you something about writing? Read a craft book and tried some exercises? Researched something new?

They all count. So bask in the feeling of accomplishment. Make some notes about what felt great to get done, and why it worked to do it that way. Congratulations.

When you’re done, look ahead. What kind of writing year do you want to have in 2018? Sure, a year is an arbitrary designation–maybe you operate on some sort of fiscal year, or you’re still a fan of the Julian calendar, or your new year starts February 16th. But it’s a good time to mentally reassess, because other people are happy to talk about goals right now, and gorgeous new notebooks and diaries deck the bookstores.

Make a little list–not too many things or it just gets overwhelming–of your writing plans. Think about the classic “SMART” goal: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely. Specific like “I want to be published in Brevity” (and we hope you do) rather than “I want to be a published author” which is a bit wide-open. The Measurement on that one’s easy–this time next year, either you did or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, maybe you got a different venue for your essay and we lost out. Attainable is also key. I’m not aiming for the Nobel Prize quite yet, plus I think someone Swedish has to nominate me. And really, winning a Nobel isn’t especially Relevant to what I want to be writing. Timely can be a deadline, or a number or pattern of attempts, so the goal feels like something you can take action on.

Here’s what I’m thinking about:

What kind of writer do you want to be? I want to write more travel pieces for mass media, so I’m making a list of places to pitch, reading their stories for tone and structure. I also signed up for a big industry convention next month, to collect business cards for tourist boards, meet media reps, and check out travel trends. Do you need help to be this kind of writer?  I’ve hired a coach to help refine my first few pitches and give feedback on story ideas.

What big project do you want to finish? Definitely another pass on my young adult novel, with a plan about how many chapters to do a week and when to start querying again. I’m organizing a writing retreat in India, and need to finish budgeting and start marketing. How are you going to do that? They’re both check-off-able tasks: chapter by chapter, email by email–“write a book” would be as nebulous and difficult as “lead a retreat.” One project is creative and the other’s business, but I’ll approach both with a defined process.

What do you want to read? More paper books and less news on my phone. How can you make that happen? Maybe turn on parental blocking on the websites that are my “I’m momentarily bored” crutches.

What do you want to stop doing? What’s occupying time you’d rather have for something else? I’m restructuring my freelance editing to do only one full manuscript at a time, with gaps between for my own work.

I realize that all sounds very organized. But it’s an effort to pull out only the most important from the giant pile of “things I’d love to do” in my brain. It’s very hard to look at the amount of time relative to the things that fill it, and be honest about what I can actually accomplish. In a way, it’s like tapas or sushi: order all at once, and you’re likely to have more food than anyone can finish. But grab the thing you love best first, enjoy it, and then order the next thing you have room for, and the next. One dish at a time. One step on a goal. And no, you do not have to order vegetables first. Choose the goal you love the most, not the obligation.

Got any questions you’re mulling over for 2018’s writing year? The comments are wide open. Ask us what you’re asking yourself. Tell us what you did–and what you’re going to do next.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Happy goal-setting and see you in 2018! 

I’m Not Hovering, I’m Writing

December 20, 2017 § 11 Comments

xx Family 2017By Jan McGuire

I have two teenage daughters who tell me I hover over them. If I peek my head into their bedroom door and ask if they are hungry, finished their homework or have clean underwear, I’m hovering.  So, I am back in school getting my master’s degree in English. Why not. Life slows down as you get older, and, as an educator, I have summers off. I have lots of time to get through graduate school.

I decide on my topic for my Monday night CNF class and start writing on Tuesday. I remember, in the nick of time, to run my youngest teenager to year-round soccer practice. I forget my class book and writer’s notebook as I ran out the door, but I did grab my daughter’s cleats. Good thing I’ve stopped hovering over them. I walk around the soccer complex so the muscles in my legs don’t deteriorate and turn to goo while I sit in front of the computer, writing. After a two-hour practice, my superstar complains that she is starving. Just this once has turned into more times than I can count, and I drive through a fast food joint because I haven’t been grocery shopping. Good thing I don’t hover over their eating habits.

Around 9 p.m. I begin writing. The keys feel so natural and the tapping comforts my fears about being too busy to be getting my master’s. I am satisfied with my rough draft as a once white screen is now filled with words. At 11:00 p.m. exhaustion hits. The alarm will go off much too soon.

On Wednesday my butt seems to have already molded to my writing chair, so I do butt crunches and munch on almonds and cran-raisins. I don’t want to snack on the carrot cake my aging neighbor gave me for shoveling her walk all winter. My neighbor would love me to hover since her husband died unexpectedly just before Thanksgiving.

The next few days I scramble to find time to write. I run my oldest teenager home from school after volleyball, but need to have her back to school for Driver’s Education in a few hours, then pick her up again at 8:30. I tell her to move closer to the middle of the road, as my rear-view mirror nearly slaps a parked car on the way home. She thinks I learned to drive on a horse and buggy and rolls her eyes at me hovering from the passenger seat.

At 9 p.m. I’m tired and wonder if it’s Friday yet. I get absorbed, then obsessed with writing, but make myself stop at midnight. The girls are making their own lunch now. I keep money on their school lunch accounts, but I don’t hover over their selections.

I momentarily took a break from coaching. After coaching several different sports and few undefeated seasons my daughters don’t like me to offer tips on their chosen sport. I rarely miss a soccer or softball game, show choir performance or volleyball match. I’m cheering them on from the bleachers, but I’m not hovering.

I decided the weekend will allow me to write, but one daughter wants to go to the mall to find a prom dress and the other wants me to walk with her to sell crap for a school fundraiser. If she sells the most crap she gets a limo ride with the other winners. Saturday night rolls around and I write and write until after midnight.

Sunday, I cut my right index finger opening a soup can and threaten my children with consequences if they don’t vacuum and do dishes. The slice on my finger increases the typos and interrupts my flow of creativity. I finish my assignment, but know I could have done better. I offer to help the girls with their homework, but they would rather fail than allow me, a teacher, to hover.

The girls shout from outside, they have found a black Labrador puppy and want to know if they can keep it. We walk the neighborhood looking for the owner. I’m not hovering.

Monday in class I realize I didn’t print off part of my assignment. I close my eyes in silent disgust as the rest of the class turns in their organized papers.

I try as best I can to raise my daughters to be independent, but the teenage years are difficult for all of us. I watch them sideways. I’m not hovering, I’m writing.
___

After a career in law enforcement, Jan McGuire now teaches English at an alternative high school in the Omaha area. She is working toward her Master’s in English at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She was a finalist for the John J. McKenna Graduate Fellowship Award in Creative Nonfiction and has been published in Lesbian Connection. She made time for writing again when her teenage daughters felt she needed a hobby.

It Broadens the (Writer’s) Mind

December 19, 2017 § 10 Comments

Let me tell you about my book, Señor…

The sticky joys of packing the kids into car seats. The triumph of cramming your daily life into a carry-on, victory dance cut short by a full bottle of contact lens solution. The stoicism of sleeping on the lumpy foldout sofa.

There’s nothing so delightful as travel at the holidays.

Fortunately for writers, it turns out travel broadens the mind regardless of destination. It’s not where you go, or even for how long–the process of moving to and within a new location is stimulating, even if it’s Aunt Hildy’s instead of Buenos Aires. As Jonah Lehrer writes in the Guardian,

…problems that feel “close” – and the closeness can be physical, temporal or even emotional – get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful – it allows us to focus on the facts at hand – it also inhibits our imagination.

Travel breaks patterns. Motion jogs loose ideas from the bottom of the brain. Even the idea of distant places makes us more creative–when a group of study participants were told the puzzles they were trying to solve came from California, they came up with more and more varied solutions than another group told the puzzles came from the office down the hall.

I’m lucky enough to travel a lot. In fact, this is the first year since 2003 I’ve spent more time at home than I have on the road, thanks to retiring from a travel-heavy job. Now I’m away only(!?!) about three months a year. Sometimes it’s super glam–I’m headed for Taiwan in a few days for hiking and hot springs, to skip Christmas and ring in the New Year. Sometimes it’s a little more prosaic, spending time with a dear friend in Shreveport, or teaching at a conference in Bowling Green, Ohio. But every time, it’s new.

I did a weird thing in Ohio last month. I’ve been slowly clearing out belongings from my former home in Michigan. It’s hard–there’s a lot of sentimental items, things I associate with my former much-loved career and my first (also much-loved) marriage. When I open up a box in the basement, I can get through about half before I start crying and decide today isn’t the day for this. But this time I packed four boxes into the car and took them with me to the conference. After class, I went back to the Best Western, put on the TV, and worked through the boxes.

It. Was. Crazy.

Clothes I remembered adoring looked faded and ill-used. Books I’d been meaning to read were unappealing. Knickknacks I once treasured? Clearly junk. I didn’t even have to ask my standard “keep or toss” question (would I buy this today for a quarter at Goodwill?), I just chucked item after item into the “donate” pile. Outside the house full of memories and guilt and loss, it was easy to see the items as they were–stuff I used to enjoy and don’t need any more. I went home with one small bag, and the Bowling Green Salvation Army got the rest.

Relocation works for writing, too. There’s a reason we go to coffee shops or co-working spaces or long for an office of our own. Place dictates function, and the function of home is to be in the feelings we’re having, connect to the people and animals present in reassuring and predictable ways. Home is not an analytical space. But travel, Lehrer writes, raises constant questions:

The same details that make foreign travel so confusing – Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me? – turn out to have a lasting impact, making us more creative because we’re less insular. We’re reminded of all that we don’t know, which is nearly everything; we’re surprised by the constant stream of surprises.

Are you going anywhere over the holidays? Use at least some of it as a way to think new thoughts. Lock the kids in a room with an Xbox and go for a long walk. If you’re at home, make a familiar space foreign. Leave your phone in another room and watch the interactions of the people around you at parties. Write, or read, or dream in a new coffeeshop. Eat a new food. Get on public transit and transfer randomly until you don’t know where you are–then find your way back home without opening GoogleMaps. Start a conversation with that person who looks tedious or emotionally needy and find out what makes them tick. Make some notes. And write about the experience, or during the journey, or inspired by it when you get home.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Sign up to follow her travels with the bimonthly I Do Words adventure postcard.

 

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