Of Charcuterie, Teleportation, and the Digressive Essay

March 22, 2021 § 3 Comments

In her latest book, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, Nicole Walker continues her deep essayistic dive into sustainability, climate change, global food issues, and her own eating obsessions, layering in the overlapping impact of our unsettling pandemic year. Her insights remain refreshingly honest and are, at times, spiced with unexpected humor. Brevity founder and fellow pancetta-enthusiast Dinty W. Moore interviews Walker on her book, on digression in the essay, and on the possibility of hope in desperate times:

Dinty W. Moore: First, a confession. More than a decade ago I was visiting the Arizona city where you live and you invited me to join you for dinner. “How about charcuterie?” you said, pronouncing it as if you knew exactly what you were proposing, and I instinctively blurted, “Yes, I’d really love that,” because I didn’t want to seem unsophisticated. Back then, I had no idea what “charcuterie” really meant, though I do still remember the enticing selection of meats, cheeses, pickled vegetables, and spreads that ensued. So maybe I’m not the best person to speak with you about Processed Meats, or maybe I am the perfect person. In any case, it is too late – we have agreed. So, here’s my question: Do you remember that dinner and I did I fool you at all?

Nicole Walker: This question is the most on-point question you could ask. I just wrote an essay for the NYT and the only real edit was, can you make it clear how you know what charcuterie is and how much privilege comes with making sure your kid eats 9 colors of fruits and vegetables a day? An obsession with food isn’t becoming. Making your guests feel out of place is definitely against the Emily Post’s rules of etiquette. Your graciousness at that dinner covered for you, if not me. I remember us sitting on the deck, eating cheese and prosciutto, and then maybe also having tacos? Max and Zoe adored you. You talked to them like they were the adults they thought they were, even though they were two and six at the time.

This story is making me want to hang out with you. If I could spend the energy to build a teleport machine instead of curing strange meats, I should. But maybe charcuterie is its own kind of teleport machine. I know books are. The main reason to publish books is to be invited to places to read or to be invited to talk with you. It’s a kind of teleport machine. The book came out earlier this month. I made pancetta for the book release, which took four weeks to cure. With book and pancetta, I am bringing myself to book readers and charcuterie eaters, which is all I ever really wanted to do.

DWM: Speaking of charcuterie as its own kind of teleportation device, what I love about your book is how processed meat, your ostensible subject, becomes a vehicle to explore so many deeper themes: pregnancy, plastic waste, parenthood, pandemic, owlets, and anti-bodies. The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras first expounded the theory of “everything-in-everything,” which is the basis for poetic (and essayistic) metaphor. Look closely at any one thing and all things will be revealed. Did you imagine at the outset of Processed Meats that salami, capicola, bologna, and prime rib would lead you in all these directions, open all these portals into culture and human existence?

NW: I was talking with a friend who is working on this big book project about her father’s time in a concentration camp in the Ukraine and she was trying to figure out a structure to the book because otherwise she just chases after details and the book sprawls. I said to her, well, you can just be like me and see where the words take you, but I get that such an approach is an unconventional one. Maybe even a vilified one. Cohesion. Topic sentences. Stay on target, Luke is told when he’s gunning for the Death Star’s weak spot. Max says of nachos that the triangle ones are better for chasing the cheese. It is nice to have a target and maybe even an angular and pointed kind of targeting device. Circles have a hard time getting the cheese.

But in writing, the target is always moving. Derrida said so in “Structure, Sign, and Play,” obviously riffing off Anaxagoras—you’re more likely to get at the thing if you approximate the thing itself. If you get closer to it. Sidle up. Don’t spook it! And metaphors are the best approximators. I take my cue from poetry so I can leap and play but I also know it can seem unserious—that I’m not making a point and completing an argument in my essays.

But my larger, forever-point is that we can understand things better from supremely local positions. Bologna and prime rib, shrimp and capicola we can know. Meat in particular is a weird way to approximate the center. Our bodies are subject to so many strange manipulations—not so many as the cow’s, of course, but still—from sitting unmovingly in church to forcing it on 100-mile runs, to suffering real hunger to letting the doctor’s take a big chunk out for biopsy, we know through our bodies and our mouths abstractions that are hard to understand otherwise. If I can mete out the steps from mouth to body to soil to tree to big global catastrophe, maybe the everything-in-everything theory that Anaxagoras offers us not only makes sense in a cognitive way but in a visceral one as well. (Puns apologized for, but not regretted. Well, a little regretted.)

DWM: All this talk of Anaxagoras and Derrida may mislead potential readers, overlooking what I find equally compelling about your book: the humor, the silly asides, the basic optimism. Processed Meats doesn’t fail to acknowledge our difficult times—not just our pandemic nightmare but our toxic consumerism and the climate crisis that we’ve been avoiding for too long—but I found the book itself to be a bit of a lift, a buoyant and invigorating read.

So, tell me Nicole. Do you still have hope? Despite it all?

NW: What is wrong with me? Why do I read about the fires and the melting and the storms and the dislocation and still find hope? I am, as flawed as it is to be, an American. I’m full of optimism just as I am full of cheese. Optimism is dangerous. It’s often plain wrong. But when I look at the twenty-year old kid who invented a boat to pull plastic from the ocean and the water protectors from the Hopi and Navajo nations bringing attention to the rapidly declining aquifer and the local farmers and community-supported agriculture, all I can see is promise. It’s brighter than the bad news—not because it’s bigger. In fact, maybe because it’s smaller. I can relate to the person who grows heritage pigs and feeds them acorns from his hand and still manages to slaughter them and sell that pig to his local pork product purveyors because he spent so much time and energy with them. They had a good and industrious life. The acorns did too. The soil researchers who worry that at a certain temperature the forest becomes a bigger producer of carbon than a carbon sink look at layers of sand and at the nearly invisible microorganisms chowing down on the decaying leaves and I think, those microbes, if not those scientists, will figure something out. I’m Generation X. We aren’t supposed to believe in anything or have a lot of hope, but I think underlying all that biting realism, there’s a layer of “fine. We’ll get it done.” I believe we’ll get it together. And by we, again, I might mean the microorganisms more than the people, but still. Getting it together will be got.
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Nicole Walker is the author of Processed Meat: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating DisasterThe After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet and  Sustainability: A Love Story and A Survival Guide for Life in the Ruins. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things AreEggMicrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. Her work has been published in Orion, Boston Review, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Normal School and other places. She curated, with Rebecca Campbell, “7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone” for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, she is noted in multiple editions of Best American Essays. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Dinty W. Moore is editor-in-chief of Brevity and author of To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno.

Virtual AWP: Dinty W Moore “Signs” His Hellish Book

March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

The AWP Conference is virtual this year, and most current and former members are rather curious what that will look like and how that will go. No hotel bar? No hotel lobby stress-attacks? No book fair chocolates? Nonetheless, U of Nebraska Press has arranged for an author “meet and greet” to mark the release this week of my hellish new memoir To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno, and I hope someone, anyone, shows up.

You have to be registered for the conference already, so if not, you have an easy out here. But those of you who are registered, the event is Friday, from 11 am to noon EST, at this link: Dinty Meet & Greet Hell Book AWP 2021. We can chat. I can sign the air. You only need to stay for a moment or two.

It is a tough year to launch a book, as many of you know. The marketing folks are working from home, pandemic bookselling is a mess, and January itself had a hellish quality. But here we are:

To Hell With It is part memoir/part spiritual essay, asking what would our world be like if eternal damnation was not hanging constantly over our sheepish heads, stoking our self-loathing and making so many of us vaguely miserable? To Hell with It pokes fun at Dante’s ambitious poem, Divine Comedy, and explores the ways in which the poet’s gruesome imagination, helped along by shady theologians, shaped western culture and made us all a little more miserable than we need to be.

The more I read about early religion, the more I came to understand how much of Catholic and Christian theology was clearly man-made, and designed to manipulate rather than to inspire spiritual awakening. Plus, I love poking fun at silliness, and Dante’s long poem is a rather bizarre and ridiculous mix of horror-movie imagery and revenge fantasy.

Beth Ann Fennelly, author of Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, generously says of the book: “I don’t dare say that Dinty’s Inferno is better than Dante’s. But it is a hell of a lot funnier. It’s so funny that you don’t realize how smart it is until it’s too late: you’ve suffered Deep Thoughts. You realize you’ve been not only entertained but enlightened.”

If you are registered for the AWP, please join me on Friday, for five minutes or so, and we’ll chat. If not, maybe have a moment, check out the book, or ask your local library to order a copy.

Thanks so much, and stay healthy!
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Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity.

Finding the “I” Character in Memoir

February 18, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

As a teacher of memoir since before the invention of the lightbulb, one challenge I see writers struggle with consistently is how to make the “I” on the page a fully living, breathing, walking and talking character. And even more important, how to make that “I” someone the reader will want to spend time with, over ten or 250 pages.

Phillip Lopate aptly points out that the problem for writers is thinking that the ‘I’ we type onto the page “is swarming with background and a lush, sticky past…” Instead, Lopate warns, all readers will actually see in the letter ‘I’ is “a slender telephone pole standing in the sentence, trying to catch a few signals to send on.”

I know this problem well, because it remains an issue for me, in my own early drafts. It is maddeningly difficult to escape my own mind, one in which the mere thought of myself brings up this complex, swirling, tumbling wealth of memories and associations. What is needed, however, is to somehow enter the mindset of an anonymous reader, one who knows virtually nothing about me.

Yet it is not enough to merely tell the reader who I am. Why should a reader believe me, of all people? Why would you believe some stranger in a Starbucks who wandered up to your table and began explaining his positive traits, unjust obstacles, and charming little idiosyncrasies? The natural reaction to the fellow in the coffee shop is to think, “Sure buddy, I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Readers aren’t that different.

On Wednesday of next week, Feb. 24th, from 1 to 2:15 pm, I’ll be exploring the various ways we can craft a compelling “I” onto the memoir page, and how that person becomes a rounded, engaging, and believable presence. The 75-minute Zoom webinar, hosted by the wonderful Jane Friedman, will focus on:

  • Why characterization is critical
  • How the ways in which we assess people in “real life” transfer to how readers assess us on the page
  • What to reveal, and what to keep hidden   
  • The importance of compassion when writing about others, but also when writing about the self
  • How to gain the reader’s trust through honesty and fairness about yourself and your adversaries (And the surprising way sharing your own faults affects the reader!)

The webinar is useful for writes at all levels,  

  • When: Wednesday, February 24, 2021
  • Time: 1 p.m.–2:15 p.m. Eastern Time / 10 a.m. Pacific Time
  • Fee: $25

Registration and more information here.

Brevity Launches Issue 66: Fresh Flash Nonfiction and Craft Essays

January 18, 2021 § 2 Comments

Our new issue launches this morning, with wishes for a safer, healthier world and brilliant essays from Jesse Lee Kercheval, Elena Passarello, Hiram Perez, Michael McAllister, Dorian Fox, Tyler Orion, Noah Davis, Ira Sukrungruang, Sonja Livingston, Anne Panning, Kate Hopper, Lizz Huerta, Melissa Stephenson, Francis Walsh, and Laurie Klein. Also, an array of wonderful photos from Kim Adrian.

In our Craft section, Nancy Reddy explores the “community we” and David Perez uses his acting background to show how reading our work aloud can make the written word come alive.

Read our latest issue here.

And we have a request as well: Brevity comes to you with no subscription fees, but we do have expenses. We have no institutional funding, and our volunteer staff is unpaid, but we pay for our website, domain name, backup software, website security software, and various other operating expenses. And we are very proud to say that we pay our authors.

If you appreciate the work we publish or are one of the many teachers who utilize Brevity in the classroom, please consider a small donation.

We are a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization, and as such all of your donations are tax-deductible.

Barry Lopez: On Art and Living Well

December 28, 2020 § 8 Comments

The author Barry Lopez passed away on Christmas Day, and we will truly miss him. His sentences were beautiful, and he was as well: setting an example as an artist, a citizen, and a human being.

Thankfully, he left us with so much of his wisdom and heart, including this passage, on the subject of hope and why we make art:

“In conversations over the years with other writers and artists about what we’re actually supposed to be doing, I’ve been struck by how often, deep down, the talk becomes a quest for the same mysterious thing. Underneath the particular image in question, the particular short story or musical composition, we’re looking for a source of hope. When a conversation about each other’s work doesn’t pivot on professional jargon or drift toward the logistics of career management, when it’s instead deferential and accommodating, we’re sometimes able to locate a kind of Rosetta Stone, a key to living well with the vexing and intractable nature of human life. If any wisdom emerges in these conversations, it offers sudden clarification. It’s the Grail shimmer. You feel it, and you can’t wait to get to work.”

Kenyon Review Short Nonfiction Contest

December 9, 2020 § 1 Comment

The Kenyon Review has announced its third annual 2021 Short Nonfiction Contest.

The contest is open to all writers who have not yet published a book of creative nonfiction. Submissions must be 1,200 words or fewer.

The Kenyon Review will publish the winning essays in the Mar/Apr 2022 issue, and the winning author will be awarded a scholarship to attend the 2021 Writers Workshop this summer.

Each entrant will receive a one-year subscription to the Kenyon Review which will start with the Mar/Apr 2021 issue. (Current subscribers will receive a one-year extension on their current subscription.)

More Information and Submission Portal.

Your Mother is a Real Character

December 2, 2020 § 8 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

It is easy in memoir – too easy – to just insert the word ‘mother’ and imagine your readers know exactly what you mean. You, the writer, have such a vivid set of associations with those six letters – m-o-t-h-e-r – that as you write, and as you revise, the woman who raised you (and perhaps vexed you) is alive and breathing, walking across the page.

For you.

But not for us. 

If you are going to write about Mom, you need to treat her like a character, present her in all of her complexity. You need to paint us a picture of your mother vivid enough that she will intrigue us throughout, just as a novelist would when creating a person out of pure imagination. Though the people we write about in our memoirs are very real, they still must function as characters on the page, because we – your readers – have never met these people.  

And by picture, I don’t mean a static description: hair, clothes, weight, age.

To better understand, think of what transpires when you meet someone, in real life. You may form an instant impression, based on clothing, physical characteristics, maybe even a “gut reaction,” but what you do next is watch and wait. “Let’s see how they act,” you think to yourself. “Give it a little while and we’ll see what sort of person they really are.”

This basic human instinct to form conclusions based on “what you see with your own eyes,” on your judgement of a person’s character, functions no differently in writing. When a reader encounters a new person on the page – and this is true whether this character is fictional or a real person captured in nonfiction – the reader (perhaps unconsciously) thinks. “Let’s see how this person acts. Then I’ll make up my mind what kind of person she is.”

Even your mother. Just because you love her, or are irked at her, or understand her, or find her endlessly puzzling, you can’t assume we as readers feel any of this. And you can’t just tell us what to feel or think about her. We’ll hear you, but we won’t be convinced.

You need to show us how she walks, how she talks, how her eyes squinch when she is confused, what she says, what she fails to say, how she folds and unfolds a tea towel when she is upset, and most importantly, how she treats others around her.

Then we will believe.

___

I’ll be teaching a webinar – They Walk! They Talk! Secrets to Writing Engaging Characters and Vivid Dialogue – next week for Creative Nonfiction, using examples from Cheryl Strayed, Kiese Laymon, and Kathryn Harrison, to further examine the nuts and bolts craft elements that allow “real people” to become living, breathing characters in a memoir or essay.

We will also explore the importance of compassion when writing about others, especially family members who may not always have acted well.

Finally, we’ll examine dialogue as a tool for creating lively and believable characters, and consider the challenges of capturing how “real people” talk.

This webinar is for writers at any level, at the beginning of a project or in the revision process. Prompts and brief writing exercises will be included.

Here are the facts:

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020 / 2 pm – 3:15 pm ET

$15 / Advance registration required.

Hope to see you there.

The Best of Brevity Visits Ann Arbor and New York City

November 27, 2020 § 2 Comments

Two Zoom readings and six amazing readers coming up next week as we continue our launch activities for the newly-released The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction. We are excited about early praise for the book, grateful to everyone who has ordered the book, and thrilled to hear from those of you who plan to give the book a test run in your writing classes next semester.

Oh, did we mention the New York Times review? Here’s an excerpt:

The immersive effect of reading this anthology straight through is the opposite of a flash experience, and is also lovely, like rolling down a sidewalk of lit windows… So much beauty, so much grief — the whole range of experience flashing by, leaving impressions as it passes.

We blush. But the credit goes to the remarkable authors who have sent us so much marvelous, powerful work over the past two decades. For instance:

On Tuesday, Dec. 1st, at 7 pm EST, the Literati Bookstore of Ann Arbor will host a reading featuring Amy E. Butcher, essayist and the author of the forthcoming Mothertrucker (Little A/Topple Books, 2022), also in development by Emmy-winning Jill Soloway and actress Julianne Moore for film; Matthew Gavin Frank, author of The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s FoodPreparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First PhotographerPot Farm, and other wonderful books; and Diane Seuss, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Guggenheim fellow, and author most recently of Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl.

You can read more about the Literati event and join the Zoom Reading and discussion here.

And on Thursday, Dec. 3, at 7 pm EST, McNally Jackson Booksellers of NYC will host a Best of Brevity reading and discussion with Rajpreet Heir, whose work has been featured in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Teen Vogue, and elsewhere; Torrey Peters, author of the novel Detransition, Baby, which will be published by One World in January of 2021, as well as the novellas Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones and The Masker; and Kristen Radtke, author of the graphic nonfiction book Imagine Wanting Only This (2017), and the forthcoming books Seek You: Essays on American Loneliness (2021), for which she received a 2019 Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant, and Terrible Men, a graphic novel, all from Pantheon.

You can read more about the McNally Jackson event and join the Zoom Reading and discussion here.

Best of Brevity co-editors Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore will be part of the discussion at both events.

The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction is now shipping from warehouses across the country and available at your local independent bookstore through curbside service or distanced browsing. 

You’ve Got to Draw the Line Somewhere: Doodling for Writers

November 23, 2020 § 7 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

I have always been a doodler — in grade school, high school, hiding in the back row of large college classrooms, eventually in faculty meetings, and often just to pass the time while waiting in a doctor’s office. Having a pencil or pen in hand and some paper, or for that matter a little free space in the margins of a magazine, has always been calming for me, meditative, and amusing, all at the same time. So I was pretty darn excited to hear that Rebecca Fish Ewan had a new book out, Doodling for Writers. How do these little scribbles of ours improve our writing? In more ways than I imagined.

I was especially pleased by the book’s release because Rebecca wrote a stellar craft essay on the graphic form for Brevity and has been featured more than once — see here, and here — on the Brevity Blog .

I was so tickled that I decided to doodle a picture of her to celebrate:

And it was the most horrible doodle ever doodled. Worse even than the drawing I did of my friend Jackson’s Labradoodle:

But Doodling for Writers is nonetheless a clever, lively, funny little book, and the advice is sound. On pacing and voice, for instance:

“Voice and breath are inextricably linked. In poetry, line breaks indicate a breath. In prose, it’s, commas, that, signal, inhalations. When I draw, I become more aware of my breaths. The lines I lay down on the page keep pace with my breathing. If I want calm still lines, I slow my breaths, which in turn slows my heart rate, which then calms my hand so it can give me the line I need.”

Fish Ewan offers up a wonderful chart detailing the links between perspective in drawing and literary Point of View. She has excellent points and pointers as to how exploring our characters in ink can help us learn more about the folks we write about in our memoirs. The prompts throughout the book are brilliant!

I like also that she regularly advises tossing out the rules, like the one about how to draw heads, which never worked for me, unless I was trying to draw the head of a pig:

The real message of Doodling for Writers is that one corner of the creative brain can stimulate another corner, that drawing, or doodling, can happily stimulate the writer’s mind, and that, what the heck, writing can still be fun (like drawing.)

__

Dinty W. Moore is the editor-in-chief of Brevity and he drewed these pictures all by his self.

The Best of Brevity Now Available & Two Readings This Week

November 16, 2020 § Leave a comment

This week, The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction begins shipping from warehouses across the country (and becomes available at your local independent bookstore through curbside service or distanced browsing.) We are excited about early praise for the book, grateful to everyone who pre-ordered, and thrilled to hear from those of you who plan to give the book a test run in your writing classes next semester.

We also have two launch events this week, our West Coast Launch in Los Angeles and our East Coast Launch on the Three Rivers Coastline of Pittsburgh. We hope you will join us to celebrate!

Here are the particulars:

SKYLIGHT BOOKS, Los Angeles, Wednesday Nov. 18th at 6:30 pm PST (9:30 pm EST)

Best of Brevity co-editors Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore will be joined by authors Daisy Hernández, Nicole Walker, and Ira Sukrungruang. Following a reading of three brief (of course) essays from the anthology, there will be lively discussion about the flash nonfiction form and tips for those wanting to write, publish, and teach flash nonfiction. An audience Q&A will follow. You can pre-register here: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/skylit-best-of-brevity/register

WHITE WHALE BOOKSTORE, Pittsburgh, Thursday Nov. 19th at 7 pm EST

At this East Coast event, Zoë and Dinty will be joined by authors Julie Hakim Azzam, Lori Jakiela, and Deesha Philyaw. Following a reading of their three brief essays from the anthology, there will be lively discussion about the flash nonfiction form and tips for those wanting to write, publish, and teach flash nonfiction. An audience Q&A will follow. Preregister for the event here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/east-coast-launch-for-the-best-of-brevity-registration-127005140795

And here’s more on the book:

Featuring examples of nonfiction forms such as memoir, narrative, lyric, braided, hermit crab, and hybrid, The Best of Brevity brings you 84 of the best-loved and most memorable reader favorites from the journal, collected in print for the first time. Compressed to their essence, these essays glint with drama, grief, love, and anger, as well as innumerable other lived intensities, resulting in an anthology that is as varied as it is unforgettable, leaving the reader transformed.

With contributions from Jenny Boully, Brian Doyle, Roxane Gay, Daisy Hernández, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, Patricia Park, Kristen Radtke, Diane Seuss, Abigail Thomas, Jia Tolentino, and many more. 
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“The Best of Brevity feels like the condensed energy of a coiled spring. A vibrant collection, dynamic in its exploration and celebration of the flash form.”

                         -Karen Babine, author of All the Wild Hungers    
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