Memoir, Novels, Lives and the Quality of Our Attention

July 17, 2019 § 10 Comments

william-stonerIn William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, Steve Almond discusses a book that changed his life—John Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner—and argues that novels are not merely books, but instead “manuals for living.”

Almond never disappoints: his prose is always powerful, provocative. He is a respected teacher and literary advocate. He is funny. He is generous.

So we tracked him down to ask a few questions about his idiosyncratic book-about-a-book and Steve’s prolific, wide-ranging writing life.

Here we go:

Dinty W. Moore: You write in your book that prior to encountering the novel Stoner, you “assumed the point of literature was to document the lives of the driven and depraved, the lawless and lust-riven, in short: the memorable… It hadn’t occurred to me that the story of every life is, from a cosmic perspective, one of obscurity. You are alive for some brief span, then you die.”

Is this a revelation limited to the fiction writer side of you, or did it influence your view of, and writing of, memoir and nonfiction over the years?

Steve Almond: Yeah, that line “You are alive for some brief span, then you die” is vintage Almond — you can hear the guy making a rather desperate play for the Beach Read crowd.

What I’m saying here applies to all genres of writing, and more broadly to all human endeavor, to the delusion that we can achieve “immortality” by means of our ambitions. The truth is, most of the meaning we find and create in our life comes in the private moments during which we seek to pay attention (and therefore love) the people around us, not in our striving public deeds.

I’m not trying to depress people here. I’m simply trying to get Americans in particular to pull their heads out of their asses, to abandon the ridiculous idea that a life is worth living, or regarding, if it involves public acclaim, the killing of many people, the accumulation of great wealth and power, the fucking of a celebrity, etc. We’re really lost as a culture. How else could we wind up with such a cruel and vapid leader?

That’s why Stoner registers to me as a revolutionary book. It posits the perfectly absurd notion that what ranks as heroic and redemptive is the act of bearing witness to your life. Stoner suffers a great deal in his life. He betrays his parents and never forgives himself. His marriage is a failure. He fails as a father. His career goes nowhere.  By the math of the obituary, he’s a nobody, a never was. But at the same time, he leads a life of deep meaning. He rescues himself from a life of agricultural servitude. His soul is awakened by literature. He works very hard to be a good teacher, to transmit love and attention to his students. He experiences a transcendent passion.

And thus, at the end of his life, he’s able to silence the voice within himself (within all of us) that says: Hey, you were a failure. He never amounted to much. Nobody took notice. He delivers this remarkable line, maybe the most hopeful line in all of literature:

He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure—as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been.

Omigod. You guys. That’s what I want to feel at the end. Hell, it’s what I want to feel every minute of my life.

Dinty: You mention the “swamp of reality television” and a mania that has infiltrated our literary culture, “with agents and editors stalking ‘larger than life’ stories ripe for cross promotion” alongside “our hunger for sensation and narcissistic reward, our readiness to privilege action over contemplation. Our tireless compulsion to be known by the world rather than seeking to know ourselves.” Though I don’t think you mean it this way, some of what you say here echoes recent critics of the memoir, especially those who question modern trauma narratives. What about this? What would the novelist John Williams have to say about the various memoir controversies and dust-ups of the past decade or so?

almondSteve: The point of Stoner—or at least one of the central points—is that what matters isn’t the quality of a particular life, but the quality of attention paid to that life. That’s what marks any piece of autobiographical work as special, from St. Augustine to Knausgard to Didion to Laymon. It’s the author’s attention to his or her own experience, and their determination to go beyond self-regard into the more dangerous and thrilling province of self-reflection.

What I’m talking about in regards to reality TV, or “larger than life” stories is the voice of the marketplace, the absurd (and again, quintessentially American) idea that what makes a life worthy is some garish “hook.” It’s this kind of capitalist pressure that induces writers such as James Frey to lie to the reader, to gin up drama by making up stuff that didn’t happen to them, or by causing authors to lie about their own identities and experiences.

The entire point of Stoner is that every human life is full of remarkable drama, because every human being comes equipped with an inner life, a set of yearnings and fears and confusions that are concealed from the world and yet persistently, unavoidably, experienced. It is the mission of all art, but literary art in particular, to engage with this inner life.

The problem with fake memoirs is simply that the writers are lying to their readers. Because the definition of creative nonfiction really isn’t that complicated, in my view. It’s a radically subjective version of events that objectively took place. The moment you start making stuff up you’re engaged in the making of another kind of writing: fiction. Which is just wonderful. But you can’t bullshit the reader about what you’re up to.

Because your readers are all you’ve got. They are your allies, your collaborators. You owe them clarity and you owe them truth. There’s no need to pander to the lesser parts of them, to chase ambulances or flog the language for beauty. Pursue the truth–tenderly, ruthlessly–and the residue of that pursuit is beauty.

Dinty W. Moore founded and continues to edit Brevity and the Brevity Blog.

In Defense of Themelessness in an Essay Collection

May 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

Randon Billings Noble author photo

Randon Billings Noble, in our May 2019 issue, explores the claim that essay collections must always be “themed,” and suggests that maybe the better question to ask is is not, Is the book saleable? but Is it sailable?

Here’s an excerpt:

During our proverbial New York lunch, right before she signed me, my once-upon-a-time agent asked what I wanted from my writing career—fame? fortune? —as well as what I wanted from this book in particular. I remember saying—so unguardedly, “I want to write a good book that people can read.”

In the years that followed—when this agent and I broke up, when my book was rejected by many more agents, and contests, and presses—I returned to this answer again and again. I return to it now when I wonder why The New York Times hasn’t reviewed it, why that literary festival rejected it, why that award didn’t choose it. I wrote a good book, and people can read it. That’s the main thing.

So if you are putting together an essay collection, I ask you to consider what your motive is in writing this particular book. If you already have a theme that drives your writing, that’s wonderful—follow it where it takes you. But if you don’t have a particular theme—and if you don’t really want to have one—take heart. Write the book you want to write, and then think about how it might be described, pitched, published and sold.

Randon Billings Noble’s full essay can be read right here. Do it.

My One, My Only

May 16, 2019 § 2 Comments

thorntonMichaella A. Thornton, in a flash essay from our May 2019 issue, released this week, writes beautifully about her one, her only child, and what the stranger in the grocery store will never understand:

I will not show you photographs of my pin-pricked stomach, a quilt of blue, green, and yellow bruises with Band-Aids of the solar system over fresh injection sites. I will not show you the hardship of lying prostrate on our marriage bed, ass in the air, gritting my teeth as my husband administers the long, nightly needle, progesterone shots to keep me pregnant. He never complains; he never tells anyone else what he is going through either. I will not show you our loneliness together. I will not show you him holding a fresh, perfect baby as the doctors put my organs back into my body, as I throw up into a kidney-shaped pan, crying over and over again to my newborn daughter, “I love you. I love you so much.”

The rest of Thornton’s lovely essay can (and should) be read here.

The Dance Between Fiction and Nonfiction

May 15, 2019 § 3 Comments

castro-photo-1In her insightful craft essay, “Genre as a Vessel for Presence,” in our May 2019 issue of Brevity, Joy Castro explores the slow-dancing, inseparable relationship between fiction and nonfiction:

Both fiction and nonfiction can weave history, myth and legend into their narratives; both can investigate the limits of form. Both, at their best, are rooted in risk. My creative nonfiction is highly shaped and always already subjective, necessarily reliant on my faulty memory, idiosyncratic perceptions, evolving interpretations, and changeable feelings. My fiction, on the other hand, includes a great deal of accurate research, statistics, real places, the actual price of half a muffaletta at Central Grocery in New Orleans. A recently published short story is factually accurate in almost every respect, but its mood is entirely different from the way I felt when it all was happening. During the events, I felt bliss, but the story is sad. In the most intimate and important sense, then, the text falsifies what happened. Yet a neutral observer could testify to its truth.

That’s just a bit of Joy Castro’s wisdom and analysis. Read the full craft essay here.

Genre as a Vessel for Presence

Whenever Men Think I’m Smiling

May 14, 2019 § 1 Comment

Meganmp_davis Pillow Davis bares her teeth in the newest issue of Brevity, out just yesterday:

There are men all around me. There are all men and me. So I stare straight ahead. I drink my coffee. I let him touch me, because it could be worse, it could be worse, it could always be worse and then in the middle of the next sip of scalding coffee that I bring to my lips come the memories, descending on me like a flock of birds: the time when I was ten and a waiter cornered me in the dark restaurant hallway and ran a finger down the side of my breast and said wanna fuck—the time I was twelve and wore my first bikini to a pool party, and my father’s friend walked up and put his hand on my shoulder as he talked to my dad and with the other hand, pulled gently at the string of the bikini top, letting me know he could untie it any time he wanted—the time I was fourteen and in London on the Tube late at night and the drunk man got on and pressed his erection up against me again and again and I did nothing because I was terrified and then he stumbled off at the next stop—the time when I was sixteen, and the boy I thought was a friend grabbed my breast and kissed me with whiskey breath before I was able to push him away—and the time—and the time—the time the time the time the time and then the man turns and looks at me and the memories flutter and wing away.

This is just a bit. Read the entire brilliant essay here.


Brevity’s May 2019 Issue: Startling, Melancholy, Angry and Fun

May 13, 2019 § 2 Comments

3 coverOur 61st Issue has launched, featuring a range of startling, melancholy, angry, and funny flash nonfiction from Patricia Foster, Och Gonzalez, Gordon Grice, David L. Ulin, Sheree Winslow, Jeff Newberry, Liza Porter, Sarah Beth Childers, Megan Pillow Davis, Jenny Apostol, Deborah Thompson, Caroline Crew, Suzanne LaFetra Collier, Jennifer Anderson, and Michaella A. Thornton.

In our Craft Section, Joy Castro explores the slow-dancing, inseparable relationship between fiction and nonfiction, while Randon Billings Noble defends “themelessness” in assembling an essay collection.

With paint can photos by Elizabeth Fackler.

Wandering Aengus Press Book Awards

April 29, 2019 § 2 Comments

dandelion-2733649-1920-pixabay_origWandering Aengus Press has launched its inaugural book awards and is now accepting creative nonfiction manuscripts as well as manuscripts in fiction and poetry (and hybrids too). We will publish up to three prize winners this year. The press is dedicated to publishing works to enrich lives and make the world a better place, because why not do as much good as we can in the world with what little time we have?

The deadline to submit is May 31, 2019. The sooner you send in your manuscript, the more time our editors will have to spend with it, so for your own sake, please don’t wait til the last minute.

The Wandering Aengus editors will select the winning manuscripts, and we’ll announce the winners by September 1, 2019. The winning manuscripts will be published as perfect-bound books by Wandering Aengus Press or our imprint, Trail to Table Press, with full distribution via Ingram. Winners will receive 50 copies of their book. Authors will have input into the cover design and interior design.

Learn more and submit your best work at

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