May 29, 2017 § 9 Comments
By Jan Priddy
The sound crew working on a film is careful to record ambient sound—the faint traces of traffic and wind and birds or elevators and footsteps and air conditioners—the barely audible noises in the background of any location. Even a very quiet place is not silent. Later, if a line of dialogue must be rerecorded or the interruption of a plane roaring overhead corrected, layering in ambient sound is necessary to ensure continuity for the filmgoer. Ambient sound is the kind of stuff we notice only when it is missing.
Most of us have done it, at least in an early draft. We piece together our bits and pieces and want to call them finished before we fully understand the story we are telling. We do not know enough to tell the truth. Sometimes that is the result of inadequate research. However we define nonfiction, creativity should not come at the expense of accuracy. Superficial research leads to shallow prose. Authenticity is achieved through the subtle layering of ambient knowledge.
More than forty years ago, a friend at the University of Washington was taking a class on scientific illustration. Her first homework assignment was to illustrate a bird. Pamela, who already had a Biology degree, chose her model from a display in the Burke Museum on the NW corner of campus. The taxidermy grebe in a diorama of coastal waterfowl had the great advantage of holding perfectly still while she made preliminary sketches and recorded colors and feathers.
Her completed illustration was a beautiful and detailed but otherwise incorrect representation of the Western Grebe. As it turned out, no living grebe ever positioned itself in the upright manner she depicted. Her portrait was of taxidermy, not life. She thus perpetuated another’s error.
Getting things right often requires that the writer know much more than what fits on the page. Ask any great writer. Novelist Molly Gloss, known for her science fiction and historical novels, noted recently that she researches a thousand facts in order to locate the one telling detail that lends authenticity to a scene. Writers of nonfiction and poetry might do well to follow her example.
Too often details in poetry and nonfiction can be traced directly to Wikipedia, and the writing is both limited and flawed because the writer has failed to pursue the richness of fact beyond the abbreviated online version.
My father, a research librarian for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, taught me a lesson about research. My elementary teacher encouraged me to use the various encyclopedias in the local library to research a report. He insisted that encyclopedias were useful only as overviews leading to more reliable sources. He took me to the card catalogue of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. He taught me to use an index, to draw reasonable conclusions from diagrams and illustrations, even those with captions in Norwegian. I learned the difference between primary and secondary sources and that I must never under any circumstances rely on the accuracy of those writing outside their specialty. Find the facts, he said, and like a good scientist (or journalist), confirm my sources with more research.
Today such research is far easier. We have access to images and texts from all over the world, libraries and journalism, film and even people. The writer seeks truth, and superficial research leads to missteps. A recently published poem perpetuates several common misunderstandings concerning a nineteenth century event. The author’s only source was likely Wikipedia, and while the Wikipedia entry is mostly correct, the poet did not have enough ambient knowledge to avoid misrepresenting what is found on that page.
It is not enough to gather factoids and vocabulary, and not enough to find dates and names. If we hope to make meaningful and authentic observations, if our readers are to trust the stories we recount as true, then we must pursue truth beyond what seems most obvious. Our understanding must be encyclopedic, not limited to scanning a few inches of an encyclopedia.
For her next illustration, my friend Pamela went to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle where the live Emerald Tree Boa was a gorgeous green and neatly draped in a series of concentric loops across a branch. Its head rested precisely in the center like a goddess wearing a broad and elegant collar of its own body. Pamela drew sketches from various angles and went home to work on her illustration. Then she panicked: What if the position of that snake was a fluke? What if, as with the taxidermy grebe, she wasted days creating a flawed representation? Back to the zoo she went. On her second visit, both Emerald Tree Boas in the exhibit had arranged themselves across branches in that same symmetrical manner. Zoo personnel confirmed the pose was characteristic of the species.
It is tempting is to make our task easy, to trust immediate impressions, but there is no excuse for errors resulting from a failure to look past the first link on Google. We need to know more than what shows at first glance. We need knowledge of what is just behind and beside our subject and the faint trace of footstep and birdsong carried through the air. We need to earn our authority not only with well-chosen words but with truth.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as the Brevity blog, The MacGuffin, CALYX, Work Magazine, Raven Chronicles, The Humanist, North American Review, and anthologies about running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives and teaches in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon.
Emerald Tree Boa (Corallus caninus) at San Diego Zoo (side view) photo by Reino Baptista, free use available through Wiki Commons, 2015
May 25, 2017 § 20 Comments
By Lynn G. Carlson
The resident dog at my vet’s office is named Beulah and she is clearly senile. Her black-lab muzzle is grizzled and her eyes are opaque gray.
She stands in the center of the waiting area on unsteady legs and makes eye contact with me, then moves her eyes to a blue ceramic jar on the counter marked Biscuits. Then she looks back at me.
When I look over at the jar, and back at Beulah, it sets her tail to wagging so hard she almost falls over.
Beulah looks at the jar, then at me. Over and over. Nothing breaks the trajectory of her gaze, not even when a german shepherd happens by on his way to the examining room and jams his nose into Beulah’s butt. A tabby-cat yowl coming from a crate not five inches away from her doesn’t even seem to register.
“Can I give Beulah a biscuit?” I ask the gal at the counter. “She looks hungry.”
“Nah. She’s already had four this morning. Thing is, as soon as she eats the biscuit, she begs for another. She does that all day long.” The woman leans over the counter and smiles down at the ancient dog. “Beulah never remembers that she just ate a biscuit, and I guess she never gets full.”
Something about this chills me. Something bothers me about that idea of being in a constant state of yearning.
Maybe because I recognize it in my own life. Maybe because I see a little of myself in Beulah’s fixation on more biscuit.
Like, for instance, the way I crave the feeling you get when you send out a “My writing got accepted!” email to friends and family.
How I yearn for the next infusion from the Muse. Words, gimme, gimme more words.
How easily I forget a good writing session and pine for another.
Yeah, Beulah, I feel your pain.
I can’t help this dog with her cravings and forgetting, although I do go over and give her a good head scratch.
But—and this is the thing—unlike Beulah, I can turn from my cravings. I can stop and say thanks to the Muse for guiding me in my garden-at-night poem, for helping me find the tendril of thought that strains towards what the poem is really trying to portray.
I can remember that I had a solid journaling session this morning, complete with the arrival of a memory about my college days in Gunnison, Colorado, when I had no car and walked everywhere. And because I was on foot and not in a car I noticed how the lines of snow on the mountains inched upward in May.
I can observe, and even admire, the way snippets and memories coalesce into a personal essay that explores why I am so obsessed with my elderly mother’s eating habits.
I can even appreciate a wobbly dog who pushes me to acknowledge the nourishment that writing gives to my life and helps me, for a moment at least, to feel full.
Lynn G. Carlson is a writer who lives on the prairie outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming with a retired firefighter, a span-triever and plenty of gophers. She has published poetry and nonfiction in various literary magazines and has an essay in NPR’s This I Believe archives. In 2016 she served as editor for Watch My Rising, an anthology of stories and poems about recovery from addiction. Lynn blogs at www.writingwyoming.com.
May 23, 2017 § 17 Comments
By Marcia Krause Bilyk
The day after Trump’s inauguration, when Sean Spicer stood at the White House podium and declared the crowd the largest in Inaugural history, instead of scoffing at him, instead of declaring him as nuts as his boss, I was transported to my childhood feelings of rage, fear, and despair.
I grew up with a narcissistic father. Our home was suffused with his grandiosity, his exaggerations, his uninformed opinions. Mother, for reasons I couldn’t understand, didn’t contradict or question him. If I complained to her in private about his bullying, she’d say, “Your father loves you.” It felt crazy. Mother warned us not to speak of what went on at home to our friends. Dad’s rages were a closely guarded secret. There was no predicting what might set him off.
I withheld from Dad what he wanted and expected of me: affirmation, loyalty, devotion. I vowed I’d be factual and avoid using his imperatives. This is the greatest, isn’t it?! I was so invested in being not-like-father, it took me years of therapy to discern my identity separate from his.
I thought my reactive days were behind me, but the triggers for post-traumatic-Dad stress are escalating. Trump fires Comey, dashing my hope for someone to stand up to him. I feel the rage underlying Trump’s tweeted “tapes” threat. In the Oval Office photo with Russian officials, Trump’s face mirrors Dad’s boyish infatuation with power. Through an absence of appropriate boundaries, Trump exposes and betrays a vulnerable source. And, now, Paul Ryan sounds like Mother. “No leaks. This is how we know we’re a real family…”
When I’m able, I detach from the news, but anyone who’s grown up amidst family dysfunction will tell you about their hyper-vigilance, their need to be aware, at all time, of where the danger lies.
And so, I sit at my computer and I write. It’s confessional, an acknowledgment of what God already knows is churning inside me. It helps me to identify the feelings I need to set aside in order to access the still and silent God-place within. Writing, for me, is centering, like prayer.
There is a response to my outpouring. Newfound understanding and compassion for my emotional flashbacks make it possible to move on to activities that bring me joy. I gaze at the seedlings on my office windowsill and decide it’s time to plant them in my garden.
Marcia Krause Bilyk is a retired pastor, who works part-time in a long-term residential treatment center for chronic relapse addicts. Her work has appeared in Gravel, The Interpreter, Five2One, Drunk Monkeys, and The Upper Room.
May 22, 2017 § 15 Comments
By Sonya Huber
The typical literary reading presents an obstacle course for many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. From finding transportation and parking to staying up late to navigating stairs and chairs, every decision involves stress and difficulty. My recent essay collection, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays From a Nervous System, deals with the twists and turns of living with chronic pain, and I knew that I needed to find ways to connect with people with chronic pain. I was surprised to find that an online reading was easy and fun, and I believe this is something other authors can easily do to extend their own audiences and make literary readings more accessible.
My first foray into online readings was through a Facebook Live Event. I hadn’t seen this done before so I kind of winged it, and in the end I think it turned out very well. I know that I will hardly ever in my life have 345 people watching me read at a bookstore, so even though I couldn’t see their faces, I could see little hearts and thumbs-up icons floating past the screen along with comments as I read. And within a few days after the reading, the video had been viewed over 1,200 times—a number that warms any creative writer’s heart. I believe that jumping into online “broadcast” can help to get ourselves out there and share our work with wider audiences, so here’s how I did it:
- Choose your platform. My options were Facebook or YouTube, and I chose Facebook because I have more contact with friends and followers there, but I think there are arguments for both platforms. The one argument against Instagram as a live video service is that it does not support captioning.
- I picked a day and time to host the “live” event and made a Facebook event for the reading. Since the reading was going to be on my personal page, I put a link to my personal page on the event itself along with information about what I would be reading from. I chose an afternoon time on a weekend because some groups of people with disabilities and chronic illness have their best energy before evening, so late events are usually not ideal.
- I worried that no one would come and that I was going to pioneer a new kind of bad idea on live video. I was grouchy with anticipatory embarrassment.
- I investigated how to caption a video and whether I could download this video. I learned that it seems complicated at first but then, once you become comfortable, it’s very possible and even easy. Captioning is important to allow access to people who want to engage with the reading but who are d/Deaf. Captioned video often comes with a separate text file called a SubRip or “srt” file, and I briefly dove into learning about that but then I learned that for basic applications like this, it’s not necessary to understand.
- I ran a test “live video” reading that was about half a minute on my Facebook profile so I could play around with the file (first learning that I couldn’t go live because of some browser preference, so that was good to know). After fixing my browser, I recorded a bit of me talking live by pressing the “Go Live” button. I learned that by clicking on the video itself so that it was the only thing on my screen, and then clicking the three dots in the upper right of the video, I could download the file as an mp4. Great! I also learned through extensive Googling that Facebook offers a new valuable service in which videos published to a Page (not a personal profile) would have an option to use automatic voice-recognition captioning. Yay! I have an author page, so I figured I’d upload the file and use the captioning in the Page itself to caption the video.
- I uploaded my “test” file (about 30 seconds of me talking) to my page. After I hit “Publish,” and the thing was uploaded and processed, I had the option to go back and “edit” the post. When I hit “edit,” there was a “captions” option that included a button to “Generate.” (I paused for a bit of joy because I was so excited.) I hit the button, and YES! Captions! I scrolled through and edited the captions where Facebook interpreted by nasal speech to nonsense, which was super-easy.
- The day of my reading, I was JUST AS NERVOUS as an in-person reading. That was interesting. Doing this also fulfilled a childhood fantasy of being a news anchor. I think many people might not have been nervous doing this as I was, but I am old-school enough that Skype and FaceTime both make me want to throw up for some reason (like… you can’t actually make eye contact with people.) Nevertheless this didn’t feel as weird as those platforms, and I happily couldn’t see anyone’s face beside my own. I read, and people watched, and then they typed questions in the comment field that I could answer. I answered some of them, and I sort of rushed those because I was self-conscious, but overall I think the whole thing went well, and I said, “I love you” a lot. The best part was feeling really immediately connected to a lot of friends. It was intense!
- I said goodbye and did a celebratory adrenaline lap around the house and ate some chocolate.
- Later after I’d calmed down, I downloaded the file and tried to upload it into my page to work on the captions. THERE WERE NO CAPTIONS, or rather, no option to generate them. This was super-annoying. After some more Googling, I learned that Facebook will only do captions (I think for longer files) for pages that are “verified.” I went on a tangent trying to prove that I am a real “business” and uploaded some tax forms and in general got frustrated. This part still hasn’t resolved yet, and I ended up getting rejected. I think you need an official listed phone number connected to your business, so universities would probably fit that bill. Anyway, whatever, Mark Zuckerberg.
- Then I turned to YouTube. It’s very worthwhile to set up your own YouTube account so you can upload content. YouTube saved the day. I uploaded the mp4 file to YouTube, and then I panicked because someone online had said that captioning was available, but once again it was not there.
- I paused for despair, but it turns out that this pause was functional. While I was despairing, YouTube was processing my file. The option for YouTube to generate captions doesn’t show up immediately, especially with a longer file. I went back to YouTube and after Googling some how-to’s, I figured out how to see the captions: go into the “Video Manager,” then edit the file, then click on the last option at the top menu bar, “Subtitles/CC.” The captions show up. If you click on “English (Automatic)” that is the rough version of your captions, and then you have to re-save your corrected version. Google a how-to if you’re nervous about this.
- I scrolled through the captions, correcting and punctuating. It was really easy. Then I published!
- I am inordinately proud of the captions that showed up beneath me, which you can see here (if the captions don’t show right away, hover over the bottom of the screen and click the CC button):
- That is completely and utterly it. Because I did this at home with wifi and my computer, the video quality is so much better than anytime I have been filmed giving a reading. I was actually surprised at how easy this was. Doing this can be considered literary citizenship work aimed at broadening and diversifying our audiences. If you are interested in other resources for making your literary and other events accessible, you can look at this collection-in-progress of accessibility resources gathered and curated by Action Together Southeastern Massachusetts.
- My son watched the first two seconds of the video and made fun of how much of a nerd I am, because really: who starts their online reading with “Woohooo!” and two index fingers in the air? Me, that’s who.
Sonya Huber is irrepressible. Additionally, she has written many wonderful books and also teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program.
May 16, 2017 § 1 Comment
Our May 2017 issue looks at sucker punches, the canine search for meaning, memory loss, kindness to strangers, and the infinite multiverse, featuring outstanding new nonfiction from Rebecca McClanahan, Sarah Carson, Karen Babine, Amy Butcher, Brian Trapp, Stephen J. West, John Rybicki, Donna Steiner, Kate Martin Rowe, Charlotte Pence, Ashlyn Mooney, Rachel Palmer, Maya Klein, Margaret MacInnis, and Georgie Hunt.
Original artwork by Heather Kresge.
In our craft section, Peggy Shumaker reminds us that language must come alive before our written lives become interesting to others, Judith Padow examines the use of fictional “imagining” in nonfiction, and Jeanette Luise Eberhardy explores connections between visual artists and writing flash essays.
And in other news:
|The Story Cure
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore has a new book, The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir.“ Booklist writes, “few guides are as tight, thorough, and engaging as this one… In a field littered with gimmicky advice, this strong, lean title stands out.” Poets & Writers adds, “Moore’s signature wit and wisdom are once again on display in this useful guide for writers of all levels of experience.”
May 15, 2017 § 9 Comments
By Jacob Little
I have several friends from various parts of the literary world who joke (with varying degrees of sincerity) about how nonfiction writers are “narcissists” or “navel-gazers” or even “cheaters” (announcing before you tell a story that it is true ratchets up the emotional investment and is a good way to disguise weak material or poor craft—or so a friend once told me). Aside from the numerous problems with these assertions, the charge of “self-involved” seems particularly hard to shake. How to explain a twenty-page story with oneself as the main character? Or even worse(!), a full-length book? (A beloved former poetry professor used to call them ME-moirs)
The obvious counter is to point out the hypocrisy of the assertion. What short story, novel, or poem has ever been anything other than the author exploring their own obsessions? The material may be different, but the self is present in all writing (and all art, by extension). We funnel our experiences and beliefs into our work.
But this is probably little more than a dodge. There is a difference between what drives and compels us to make art, and the content of the art itself. Why do we often choose ourselves for material, as if we are the most interesting or important subjects to consider? If you have one biographical story then fine, but why keep going back to that particular well?
It helps me to think of writing nonfiction as performing a live, theatrical self-autopsy. One might similarly point out why wouldn’t you perform the autopsy on someone else? Why is your body so interesting? And I’d answer the same way I do when explaining why I write nonfiction; “I have no moral or intellectual authority over someone else’s body. With my body, I may do as I choose. I know it better than I will ever know someone else’s. When I am the one with the scalpel, I may tell you what each cut has done to my body, what it feels like. I can point out each scar and attempt to tell you its origin.”
So we have ethical and factual authority over ourselves as material. We can speak to our own authenticity and accuracy, according to our actual experience. But why is this important? Why does it matter if you’re simply telling an audience about your—a single human’s—experience of being alive? Why should anyone else care at all?
For some reason, when talking about the self-dissection that occurs in nonfiction, we sometimes talk about it as if we are dissembling a machine in order to learn more about the machine itself; writing about the self is not merely a way to understand the self. That’s a part of it, for sure: “Jacob Little reporting from the field: I’m a human and it feels like this.” But when we are tempted to think this way, we should remind ourselves to look less at the frog’s formaldehyde-soaked intestines and more at what those intestines reveal about the world outside of the frog.
After all, long before humanity had begun the long, dirty work of mapping our bodies’ various humors and machinery, Babylonians practiced autopsies on animals. They did not do this to learn more about a crow’s intestines or a cat’s liver. Despite whatever its ransacked and inventoried appearance might suggest, the animal itself was never the thing revealed. Instead, the Babylonians believed that examining the innards of animals was a way of communicating with the gods. In humanity’s earliest days, pulling apart the bodies of animals allowed us to see into the future, to understand a purpose to our otherwise senseless, chaotic lives.
And so, when we’re pulling ourselves apart on a stage for readers, we aren’t just staring at our disembodied pancreas, trying to work it out for our own sake. Instead, we are holding up the organ to ask everyone in the room “do you recognize this?” and “what the fuck is this for?” and “what does this pancreas say about the mind of God?” If you rip apart a pocket watch, a laptop, a couch from IKEA, a human body, you will learn a great deal about the thing itself, but also about how things like these tend to work.
Good nonfiction—like all good story writing—extrapolates, tries to make sense of chaos, looks for similarities and signs and portents even in a bowl of Wendy’s chili. This isn’t, of course, accurate. At least, not any more than examining a bird’s entrails for messages from God. But we’re in the stone ages here. Our communication is hopeless at explaining our bodies, concerns, and experiences, woefully inadequate to engage our intellect, emotion, or consciousness on the level we are capable of. The best pieces of writing advertise their own failure to the reader, reminding us that story is artifice, that this autopsy is being recorded—and what’s worse, the doctor knows it. This acknowledgement is a cause for lament as well as celebration.
This lack of real connection leaves me, personally, feeling severed, separated. Every body outside my own must be a foreign object. There can be no pretense at comprehending someone else’s thoughts, motives, or desires, especially when I know so little of my own. And so, when I write about myself, it is not because I’m obsessed with understanding myself, it’s because I’m obsessed with understanding the rest of you. I see in myself some of the same organs you have, and am compelled to examine what’s inside of me for even miniscule, imperfect implications about the depths contained within all of you.
Jacob Little is the Managing Editor of Brevity and a PhD candidate at Ohio University. You can find his poetry and nonfiction in DIAGRAM, Split Lip Magazine, Gigantic Sequins, and Yemassee. He’s been radioactive since 1733. You can follow him at @little_jaycup and jacoblittle.net.
May 11, 2017 § 3 Comments
By Sonya Huber
Katherine McCord’s book Run Scream Unbury Save, winner of the 2016 Autumn House nonfiction prize chosen by Michael Martone, is a whetstone of a fragmented and poetic memoir in bursts and paragraphs. You will emerge from each page emboldened to capture the exact this-ness of your day as a shadowbox-diorama with that exact plastic dinosaur and this exact wad of sponge for trees you colored insufficiently with a green marker (remember?). McCord’s work is “stream of consciousness,” but not a cup of tepid pondwater of raw free-writes or the journal stuff of “why am I sad today?” That stream is not the first pass but the final barrel-roll through the linebackers of an extended sports metaphor that flails like a wipeout on an icy sidewalk because what do I know about football anyway? McCord’s layered entries glance off narrative threads having to do with her family, crafting, her sister, texting, wasps, writing, the CIA, seasonal affective disorder, dreaming in horses, and teaching, among a million other things. The binding material here is a voice that flutters like a bird-heart, hurtling the gaze of the reader through the sky and dropping all pretense of packaged experience, opting instead for revelatory and intimate association.
Stream of consciousness as a phrase (William James, Principles of Psychology, 1890, thx Google) was first used in a literary sense to describe the work of Marcel Proust, James Joyce (i.e. in Ulysses) and the work of Virginia Woolf (see The Waves for some awesomeness). Stream of consciousness reconstructs with careful attention and precision the feeling of thought with all its bright sparks and twists and rapidity. In contrast, my typical journal entry starts like this: “I’m feeling shitty and I’m not sure why,” (though it’s always vague catastrophes impending that I am sure I can predict) followed by an attempt to talk myself down from whatever current fear I’ve got whipped up into a healthy meringue. But the “meringue” in that last sentence—I wouldn’t journal with that word; that’s me talking to you, not me talking only to me. Beyond the sinkhole of my journal, the associations captured by stream of consciousness present a portrait of a moment and a mind. What I don’t write in my journal is this: These days I’m afraid because Trump just announced an increase of troops into Afghanistan. And that country—never been there—makes me think about the Soviet invasion of as reflected through the 1980s in Mr. Joe Miller’s history class (cinder-block painted in so many layers of yellow that it had started to look over the years like glossy cheese). The 1980s were also about fears, and the cassette “Songs from the Big Chair” from the band Tears for Fears, waiting for the bomb with every day being the day before the day after, and I felt like maybe those dark-eyed men wearing tons of hair gel understood. But what Big Chair? I could wonder about it for hours as if knowing which chair would keep us alive. What kept us alive in the era of the Big Chair was dumb luck, I assume, plus not having an erratic tyrant in charge with a hair like an orange meringue. (Too much? Or not enough? If I apologize, my dead socialist relatives will unbury themselves, run/scream/buy plane tickets, reconstruct their own skeletons to ship their German skulls over the ocean just to look me in the eye with their eye sockets and ask, “Too much?”)
There is something in the details that will save us in the face of the vague and imprecise erasure of the world. Details—like a horse trough somehow painted with glitter that McCord’s daughter uses to store her clothes in—offer the solace of the particular and the real. McCord’s details dredge this “stream of consciousness” that pursues its own fluid self with avid reckless attention, steering always away from abstraction and vagueness of emotion toward the shocking vivid precision of remembered sights, sounds, smells, slants of light, feelings, and street corners. McCord’s short entries string together, given a sense of propulsion precisely by her own breathless quest for honesty, confiding in the reader that she can’t quite find the thing she means to say and so she returns on each page with another angle, refracting and pursuing the quickening edge of life and consciousness itself.
Sonya Huber’s newest book is Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program.