November 23, 2020 § 6 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.
November 17, 2020 § 12 Comments
What happened to you was powerful—but will anyone else want to read it? And which events from your life go in the book, anyway? Do you need more backstory? Or more action? Is the reader going to get it?
The foul-mouthed creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon know the answer. You might not love their sense of humor, but Matt Stone and Trey Parker are story-structure geniuses. Every set-up pays off. Every scene is necessary to understand the whole story. Every action is motivated—often by hatred, selfishness, egotism or pettiness, but viewers never wonder “Huh, why’d he do that?”
A couple of years ago, Stone and Parker visited NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to speak to a Storytelling Strategies class.
(Here’s a great two-minute video of the below, including additional f-bombs)
They tell the students:
Trey Parker: We found out this really simple rule that maybe you guys have all heard before, but it took us a long time to learn it.
We can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re fucked. Basically. You’ve got something pretty boring.
What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea, and it’s like ‘so this happens’ right? And then this happens,’ no no no no, It should be ‘this happens, and therefore this happens. But this happens, therefore this happens.’
Literally we’ll sometimes write it out to make sure we’re doing it.
…And there’s so many scripts that we read from new writers and things that we see…
Matt Stone: …you see movies where you’re just watching, and it’s like this happens and then this happens, and this happens—and you’re going what the fuck am I watching this movie for? This happened, and then this happened, and then this happens. That’s not a story. It’s ‘but’ ‘because’, ‘therefore’ that gives you the causation between each beat, and that’s a story.
Revisit your manuscript. (This is a particularly good exercise if you’re stuck on your middle or ending.) List the scenes. What happens in each one? Can you connect each scene to the next with But! or Therefore… ? Do any of them connect with And then… ?
If a scene isn’t a “but” or a “therefore,” that still doesn’t mean cut it right away. Take another look. What’s literally happening in the scene, that you’ve written in the text as Then-You experiencing action and dialogue in the moment? What’s emotionally happening in the scene that’s clear in the subtext, or that you’re adding in the reflective voice of Narrator-You writing the book? Are both of those things fully present in what you’ve written?
My mom pulled out my drawers and dumped my clothes on the floor because she said they weren’t folded right.
And then I folded them all and put them back.
And then I went out and lost my virginity in the back seat of Susie’s car.
My mom dumped all my clothes on the floor.
Because I was afraid to defy her, and I still wanted her to love me, I folded them all the way she wanted and put them back.
But I wanted to show her she didn’t own all of me, therefore I went out and told Susie I wanted to lose my virginity now, and could I borrow her car?
Stilted as this is, isn’t it more exciting already?
The actual “therefore,” of course, doesn’t belong in your narrative. But each scene should imply that connection to the next, causation showing this scene could not have happened without that scene, therefore that scene is necessary to my story. This scene is that scene’s But or Therefore.
Then try working backward. Is each scene a specific result of something that has happened earlier? Is the end of your book the biggest Therefore of all?
Your scenes may not be in the exact order of causation—your timeline may show that long-past events were the “Because” of a present action, or Chapter 3 establishes a set-up that pays off in Chapter 9. But your conscious awareness of these connections will help you determine both if a scene belongs—and what the reader needs from this scene to move forward in your story.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Story as a live webinar December 16th, and the recording will be available to anyone registered.
October 21, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
Lee Gutkind has played a singular role in shaping the world of creative nonfiction, as an author, as a teacher, as a public advocate for the genre, and by founding Creative Nonfiction magazine (and the many offshoots that form the Creative Nonfiction Foundation.) Though his best-known books over the years fall into the category of immersion journalism, his latest book, My Last Eight-Thousand Days: An American Male in His Seventies, tackles two acutely personal subjects, aging and death. I recently spoke with Lee about the book, the challenges of memoir, and how he turned his immersion skills around to focus on the self:
DINTY: You say in your book, “Aging for most of us is a silent process,” yet you explicitly decided to do the opposite, to speak up on a subject many people try to ignore or avoid. Do you remember the impetus for this memoir? Did you decide one day, “I’m going to write a book about age and its challenges,” or did the subject sneak up on you, as they sometimes do?
LEE: Actually, My Last Eight Thousand Days had been a work in progress for at least ten years, maybe more. Just as my life had been a work in progress for seventy plus years. And I like to think of the book as a transition or transformation from the Lee I used to be to the Lee I am now. Which is not to say that I am a hell of a lot different—a totally new person than I once was—but writing the book helped me analyze my life and adjust to a more satisfying and realistic future. For whatever of my last eight thousand days that I have left.
The book is about aging, obviously—a subject and a reality that I had aggressively avoided for my entire life. Until my seventieth year, when my two best friends died, and when my mom, my real boon companion, died five days before my seventieth birthday. And a book that I had hoped would be the triumph of my literary career fell apart—was cancelled. Other stuff happened, bad stuff, during that year leading up to my seventy-first birthday, and I was quite shaken. I felt trapped and blocked.
As all writers, I spend a lot of time by myself, at home with my notebook, display and keyboard. Not getting out too much or working too hard to establish a life away from my work. Almost all of my books have been what might be called “immersions.” I devote lots of time—years!—investing myself in the lives of others—organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires and more—trying to understand and recreate the characters about whom I am writing, seeing the world, their challenges and passions, through their eyes. But doing that conscientiously and obsessively for so many years made it easy to ignore my own circumstances. And don’t forget, I am leading a literary organization and teaching full-time. A lot to do. I’m not saying that I have been all alone, but my work has been my all-consuming priority; I didn’t need or want much else. Until my seventieth year. Losing my friends, my mom, my book—my support system—forced me to realize that there was something more to life than my work and that some sort of change must occur.
One change was writing something different—out of my well-established bailiwick. A big challenge. All my life I have been writing about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds. It was time, I decided, to turn the lens of my mind around and do a deep dive into myself. It wasn’t easy to make that transition. I had a lot to learn not only about writing in this new way, but about myself and what made me who I am. The process is not unlike devoting a half dozen years to therapy. You sit in an office, prompted and encouraged by a nod of their heads and encouraging sounds, and you spill out your stories. And then over the week you think about and ponder the memories and ideas you shared, and when you next sit down on the couch, you often tell the story a bit differently, or go deeper, sometimes changing the entire narrative. That’s part of the process of writing memoir. It is not a one shot deal; it’s more like a shot-gun. Memories scattered, revision after revision, tangent after tangent, although you never know until months or years later that you’ve got it right. If you ever know it at all.
DINTY: I love the memoir as therapy metaphor, primarily because you frame it quite differently here. Too many times I’ve heard the idea of memoir as therapy reduced to the idea that we are writing “just to make ourselves feel better,” which is often used as a put-down of the memoir genre, and is an overall misunderstanding. But the idea that—after having written our memories onto the page—we turn these memories over in our heads, question what we have written, and through that process go a bit deeper and possibly crash through false narratives, addresses the act of discovery, the shattering of convenient truths and assumptions, that powers the best memoirs. Can you articulate a moment in your personal narrative that you saw somehow differently after this process of writing, revision, re-revision, and revising again?
LEE: No lightbulb moment here. And just to clarify, I did not write a memoir to feel better. In fact, there were many times, writing, that I felt pretty bad. And even now, re-reading, there are passages and notions that bring me down. But my change in perspective was a process—through revision. I sent an early draft to a friend who said all the right things about my writing, the stories, etc. But he also said that I sounded somewhat antagonistic, sometimes even angry in my telling. I was kind of puzzled. I admit I wanted to be provocative, but I did not want to be “stinging” or blaming other people. That’s not what I wanted my memoir to do—and not what the best memoirs achieve. Memoir is not a blame game. I just wanted to write my story—be honest about the stuff that had happened to me—or what I perceived had happened to me and how what happened changed me. So, I began to re-read the draft and adjust the tone. I even read some of the passages out loud, and I could hear in my voice an in-and-out wave of pent-up resentment and frustration that I did not want to impart and, most importantly, did not even feel—toward others. While going through this process, the composition of my stories changed and evolved. Not the facts, of course, but how I had perceived them. And I began to realize that if the antagonism and anger did sometimes exist in my writing, the tone and orientation was mis-directed. I was angry at times, yes, but much more so at myself than at others. And so . . . reflection along with revision came to eventual realization. I have to say that this realization changed my next many drafts. If my book helps readers to smile and even sometimes laugh and empathize, it is because I was eventually able to perceive my story more positively. The last part of the book, the re-affirming part—my transformation from the Lee I was to the Lee I think I am now could not have been written without the deep dive into the process of listening—not just reading—what I was writing and saying.
DINTY: You mention above that throughout most of your career you wrote “about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds,” doing immersion research into “organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires.” That required certain skills of listening, and seeing, certainly, even before you began to put words onto the page. Did those skills manifest themselves somehow in this project? How does an immersion journalist immerse himself in, well, the self?
LEE: For me, doing an immersion is not only being a chameleon—but also being a camera. I observe the worlds about which I am writing as if I am making a movie. And then, at some point, I recreate the action—the scenes—at my desk, on my keyboard or notepad. I read and “watch” carefully until I think I have it right—or as right as I can get it at that moment. And then, and only then, do I begin to enter into the scene, the text, and allow myself to think about how I feel about what I have observed and composed.
More or less, I followed the same process writing this memoir and digging into me. I wrote the scenes that I remembered, the cinema I wanted to re-live and share with my readers, through the eye of my “self” camera, and then allowed myself to enter into the action in a deep mind-meld way. Ordinarily the reflection part of the immersion should be limited. After all, you are writing about other people. But memoir is about you, and so my reflection, my feelings, ideas, emotions had no boundaries. I allowed myself to go on and on. Paragraph after paragraph and page after page, if I felt so inclined. Until the stories I wrote were put into context and a balance was established between story and meaning. I am not saying that I stuck rigidly to this process because feelings often led to other stories—stuff that I didn’t even know I remembered or cared about. Tangents that sometimes went nowhere and sometimes also, embraced and clarified a great deal. I am also not saying that I knew exactly what I was doing, but that was my plan of action–the way in which I entered into the book, the method I knew best. What had worked for me in the past—over a lifetime. I guess you can’t, as they say, teach an old dog new tricks. But there’s always room for spontaneous adaption—tricking yourself, so to speak. That’s also the creative part of creative nonfiction—the “trick” that makes it work.
Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity and author of the forthcoming memoir, To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno.
October 20, 2020 § 16 Comments
It’s the key question for all memoirists: Why should the reader care? What’s in it for them?
Autobiography and biography have the shortcut of fame. What’s in it for the reader is finding out more about someone they’re already fascinated with. But for those of us not (yet) famous, our memoir must have a takeaway for the reader. Just as we grew and changed in the story itself, our telling of it must grow and change the reader.
What gives the reader a chance for personal growth while reading our self-history?
Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story:
Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.
Biographies recite facts, hopefully told in an interesting way. Memoir creates meaning, and a key technique for creating that meaning is reflection, using the retrospective voice.
The retrospective voice is different from “the past” or “the past tense.” Past-You reacts in the moment, and you show it in action, in a scene, and in whatever tense you’ve chosen for your narrative. Here, in Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson writes about her childhood:
By age seven I realized that there was something wrong with me, and that most children didn’t hyperventilate and throw up when asked to leave the house. My mother called me “quirky.” My teachers whispered “neurotic.” But deep down I knew there was a better word for what I was. Doomed.
There’s thinking in here, yes, but the author is thinking as the child she was, processing her experiences through the reactions of the adults around her at that time. We’re staying in the child’s time period. The narration is simply phrased and focuses on the immediate feelings and reactions of the child. The reader’s engagement is in the humor and pathos of the situation, without commentary from the adult narrator.
Using the retrospective voice, Narrator-You juxtaposes events to create meaning—meaning that brings a sense of shared humanity and realization to the reader.
Jenny Lawson again, later in the book and in her personal timeline:
The skating rink was shuttered and abandoned, the sign filled with empty birds’ nests. The bookstore where I’d met Victor was gone now, and my grandparents’ home sold soon after they died…My sister and I walked through the aftermath of the playground together and I took a small piece of the rubble to remember it by. Now when I pass by the school I look away and remember it the way it was, with the dangerous metal seesaws and merry-go-rounds that eventually disappeared all over America. All that remains of it today is the memory, still echoing in my head, of the sound of my favorite swing, squeaking rustily and comfortingly, over and over, back and forth.
The language isn’t any more complex, but the sentences are longer and contain more images than actions and feelings. There’s a deliberate rhythm in the end of the last line that lingers for the reader, allowing them a moment in their own thoughts of what, for them, has passed.
You can blend the retrospective voice with a past scene, and the contrast is often poignant or funny:
[My mother] gave us a look that my father always seemed to interpret as “How lucky you girls are to have such an adventurous father,” but which I always read as “One of you will probably not survive your father’s enthusiasm. Most likely it will be Lisa, since she’s smaller and can’t run as fast, but she is quite good at hiding in small spaces, so really it’s anyone’s game.” More likely, though, it was something like, “Christ, why won’t someone hurry up and invent Xanax?”
Most of the paragraph is Past-Jenny, but the last sentence is Narrator-Jenny, wryly assessing the moment as her adult self.
Take a look at a memoir you admire. Where is the writer their past self, thinking and feeling and experiencing? Where are they the narrator, making meaning from those moments, maybe even straight-up telling what they know now? And more technically, where has the writer put events and scenes physically next to each other on the page, so that their juxtaposition itself creates meaning for the reader?
Ask those questions of your own work, too. Chances are you’re already using the retrospective voice instinctively; now apply it deliberately. Where do you want the reader to stay with Past-You, reacting directly to the action? Where do you want to share Narrator-You’s discoveries, so that the reader can reflect themselves, feeling the resonance of your words in their own life?
The retrospective voice dances on the edge of being the moral of the story, but allows the reader room to complete the thought themselves. It’s telling just enough. In the main narrative, show them what you did. In the retrospective voice, show them what you know.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Tomorrow, she’s teaching the webinar, Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist. It’s just over an hour and a steal at $25. Recording will be available but you must register in advance: sign up here.
September 23, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Alysia Sawchyn
I was nineteen, maybe twenty, the first time I requested my medical records. Back then, I was still on my parents’ insurance, and they were filing a claim, hoping to be reimbursed, at least in part, for the expensive drug rehab where they’d sent me. It was a facile experience; I barely lifted a finger. My role was a HIPAA formality—I (resentfully) waved at the familiar receptionist, doctors, and nurses and said, Yes, my parents can access my medical records. The staff presented my father with a thick manila envelope, and I practically skipped out the front door, still enjoying my freedoms. Nothing to it.
Seven-ish years later, I started writing a book about my mental health diagnoses and misdiagnoses, which eventually became A Fish Growing Lungs. My memory is not great (see rehab above), and some of the dates, appointments, facilities, and doctors muddled together, making drafting difficult. I wanted specifics, and my old medical records would be able to provide at least some particulars, untainted by time. I envisioned the recorded dates like scaffolding around which I could build a structure made of memory.
The list of doctors and institutions I drafted was daunting both because of its length and its incompleteness. I live by my checklists, and excerpts of this one read like a classified document:
- (firstname?) Jones — psychiatrist, private practice? NoVA, 2004/2005-2006
- Psych ward doctor — Psych ward (??), state run? NoVA, March 11? 2007
- Doctor? NP? — Clinic, Greensboro, NC, March/April? 2007
- (firstname) Sharif & Dr. Jarod Diaz — psychiatrists, Rolling Hills Treatment, Clearwater, May 1-30 2007?
Imagine calling a doctor’s office and saying something like, Hi, yes, I think I was a patient at your institution seven-ish years ago, could you please check if I was actually there and, if so, could you please send me copies of my medical records? The process was an odd mix of social engineering and verifying my own identity eight different ways on a phone line.
Only one acquisition was relatively straightforward: My longest-standing former psychiatrist (whose name I remember and who hadn’t moved offices or closed their practice) immediately said, Yes, and hardcopies were available for me to pick up the next day. I think he may have even waived the fee.
The rest of the items on my checklist were a mix of awkward; unattainable; or achieved only by sheer, dumb luck. One of my former therapists basically said, Ugh, do I have to; they’re somewhere in my storage unit, and at that time I still had not yet had enough therapy to say, Yes, Jennifer, please go get my goddamn medical records.
Much harder than acquiring my medical records was reading them. Writing personal essay necessitates constructing a persona on the page, and while I am accustomed to trying to make sense of my past self, this added another layer of complexity. This was me trying to make sense of how others had made sense of me. Reading the documents felt like handling a nesting doll made out of so many jellyfish. My first few attempts ended with me shoving the stacks of paper under my bed and going outside to smoke. The solution I ultimately settled on (after having to reorder the documents a few times) was to camp out on my balcony with a pack of cigarettes and chain-smoke my way through the folders. It wasn’t graceful. To see oneself through the eyes of others is charming when you’ve just started dating; it’s markedly less so when you’re having a psychotic break in the ER.
Earlier drafts of Fish relied heavily on these doctors’ notes. I incorporated direct quotes into several different essays, and one was entirely devoted to the nuances of my diagnoses juxtaposed against sections of previous and current versions of the DSM. Over the course of about a year, different readers of that particular essay, creatively titled “Diagnosis,” flagged it as bulky and dragging, and each time I made appreciative mhmm sounds before hoping the next reader would say something different.
I tell people I am a slow writer because I need lots of time between drafts to be able to see what I’ve actually written, instead of what I’d wanted to write. A lot of scholarly work exists around illness narratives—the hows and whys of their construction; their benefits and potential pitfalls, both for the author and audience; how they can inadvertently reinforce medical institutions’ granting power of legitimacy—but I’m going to leave all that aside and say that, in the end, I cut “Diagnosis,” salvaging only a few darling phrases to sprinkle throughout the remaining essays.
When I was finally able to set my manuscript aside for half a year, I returned to it to find that I agreed with my earlier readers’ comments. What I found was not an essay that added to the collection, but a document I’d created in order to write all the other essays around it. “Diagnosis” was how I’d made sense of how others had made sense of me; the only way I knew how to unpack those pesky, slippery dolls was to write them out.
The moral of this is not “Do whatever your readers tell you to do” (though I did have excellent readers). The moral is “It takes every word it takes.” Today, my medical records are in a plastic bin in my attic crawlspace labeled “BOOK 1,” alongside all the other articles and handouts and lists and notes I read and made for Fish—not dogma, but just another type of source material. I had to read and write every sentence to get to the end. All this digging and drafting happens not because everything I uncover should make its way into the final written product, but because the process is the bulk of the work, and thus, where the bulk of the joy resides.
Alysia Sawchyn is a Features Editor at The Rumpus. Her essay collection about misdiagnosed mental illness, A Fish Growing Lungs, was published by Burrow Press in June 2020. You can find her on Twitter @happiestwerther
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
September 16, 2020 § 3 Comments
In the introductory conversation around Brevity‘s special issue on the Experiences of Disability, Sonya Huber asks her fellow guest editors Keah Brown and Sarah Fawn Montgomery to discuss how disability shapes their writing process, including ways in which their disabilities can change and deepen what and how they write:
Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Of course disability impacts my writing by sometimes limiting when, if, or how much writing I can accomplish, but disability also deeply informs my craft. It is subject and structure, influencing everything from framing and pacing, to detail and syntax. Disability has also shifted my writing practice. I know that I might not always be well enough to write, so I take advantage of any opportunities and am grateful rather than critical of the work I produce during this time. I recognize that long stretches of writing time are not always possible and have learned to write in short spurts and in unexpected locations. Sometimes I write daily, but many times I do not, and I do not feel guilty for taking time away to care for my body and brain. I understand this as another kind of writing practice, because caring for ourselves away from the writing eventually allows us to put words on the page.
Keah Brown: Disability impacts and shapes every aspect of my life. I am not just my disability but it is the lens through which I navigate the world. The writing process is no different. Earlier on in my career, I felt beholden to discuss disability, and that left me resentful, but as I have matured and grown, both as a person and professionally, I have realized that disability is a part of the nuance I bring to my work. The lens of disability has allowed me to get creative on the days my body won’t allow me to work at all. Shaping the way I approach work, disability is at the center of my work particularly in holding myself and others accountable, as well as giving me the opportunity to be assertive in what I need in order to create and when I need to say no. The truth is this: disability does shape my writing process from beginning to end in precious and obvious ways, but more important than words on the page, is the ability to shape me as a person. I am such a cliché, friends!
You can read the full discussion here.
September 11, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Debra Gwartney
I’ve long subscribed to Phillip Lopate’s observation that a central aim of memoir is self-awareness. It’s been my aim when I write memoir, anyway. Questions that spur me on once I start shaping a narrative around my personal life go something like this: what remains unsolved in me about said thorny matter in my past? What is it that I have refused to face or acknowledge about how I acted way back when? Beating myself up over mistakes is not what I’m after—instead, I’m curious about that younger self in an earlier time. What she was up to, and why?
It strikes me, then, that some sort of exterior search—that is, a search for a missing person, or for a place infused with history, or for a particular item that rings in one’s memory—is a useful trope for this kind of self-excavation. I’m thinking, for instance, of Jane Bernstein’s stunner of a book, Bereft, in which she searches through physical and anecdotal evidence for the hidden truth about her sister’s murder. Or Michael Ondaatje’s probe through family legacy and lore in Running in the Family. Or Nina Boutsikaris’ bold investigation into her own chronic illness in I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry. The “I” on the page engages in a pursuit that frames the narrative, while the stuff of memoir (questions about identity, that is) rumbles beneath, gaining traction and depth with each page. The parallel threads—exterior search and interior— spark off each other, inform, and catalyze into dimensions of authenticity and relevancy.
D.J. Lee’s new memoir, Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots, is yet another example of the dual search, the outside and the inside. The book begins with news of a woman named Connie who is missing in the Bitterroot-Selway wilderness of Idaho (“If you want to disappear, you go to Idaho County,” the narrator’s mother cryptically announces in the early pages). Connie is irascible, insistent, flinty tough enough that she basically socks any peril straight in the nose. She is the wilderness ranger at Moose Creek Station, way, way into a remote Idaho landscape that is largely uninhabited by humans, one of the last bastions of true wilderness in our country.
Connie has been also, for years, an unlikely guide for Lee in her desire to spade through family history and fill in gaps that have chafed at her for years—an unlikely guide in that Connie cuts Lee no slack, and certainly does not slather her with sympathy; of course that’s exactly the no nonsense direction our narrator most needs as she forges ahead. Except now Connie cannot be located. Her absence, and the many valiant attempts to find this doyenne of the forest, weave through the book, as Lee grows more frightened for her friend and more determined to cast light on the gnarly, unburied truths about her own family. Many of these truths are related to her grandparents, who were early rangers at Moose Creek, a decades-long adventure that nourished her grandfather George but left her beloved grandmother, Esther, nearly eaten alive.
So, it’s actually a flurry of searches we find ourselves in with Remote, layer upon layer complicated by the book’s structure—not a conventional narrative with its string of chapters, but instead a series of vignettes that sizzle with subtle synapses, one to the other. Each individual piece dips into a process of discovery that Lee describes as “braided currents, their true power flowing from convergences.” It’s a form that might be called collage, though as I read the book it occurred to me that this is just how a curious mind would operate, poking around over here, and then over there, digging up this corner and then this other, until a larger picture forms, until the pieces fit together with a satisfying click. Or don’t fit together at all, because isn’t that how life is: ridiculously stubborn about dishing out easy answers.
The search for Connie serves as a frame, but it’s Lee’s search for self that quietly drives the narrative of Remote, as is true for every memoir. Well, every memoir I enjoy reading. She must visit this critical location, Moose Creek Ranger Station, of her grandparents’ legacy, and she must stay long enough and return frequently enough that the generational story can wend out of the past and into the present. Lee develops a renewed perspective on her family’s abiding connection with the Idaho wilderness, and on her years of tug-of-war with a spunky grandmother, and on her decades of tensions with her own gentle mother, and on her desire to fix family wrongs as a mother to her own daughter. These are the relationships that have tested her, shaped her over five-plus decades, and Lee realizes that she can hold tight to certain aspects of the history while finally letting go of that which has festered and ached for too long.
Which is also memoir’s turf: no matter what you devote to it, or how much you desperately want that elusive closure, there is rarely a tidy end to any search.
Debra Gwartney is the author of two book-length memoirs: Live Through This, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and I Am a Stranger Here Myself, winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Prize. Recent work appears in The Virginia Quarterly Review and Sweet. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon.
September 9, 2020 § 11 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
I think creating a strong piece of short nonfiction—be it a lyric essay, a collage, flash, micro, whatever—is like knowing exactly how to use the zoom lens on a camera. You can keep the lens fully retracted and create a picture that includes many elements, several focal points—or you can zoom in and train your eye on one person, one moment, a limited canvas that somehow tells a bigger story. You have to decide what belongs in the frame, and crop out what doesn’t. Easier said than done.
Lately, I’ve been writing (or trying to write) about my dad. Since he died 15 months ago, I’ve barely been able to pen a grocery list, let alone an essay. Now, after much grieving and healing (which is, for what it’s worth, nowhere near complete), I feel small, hopeful sparks of creativity returning. But when I start to tell a story about him, my zoom lens pulls back and suddenly I’m going on about explanations and history, about our family, his childhood, my childhood. I can’t stop. It all feels completely essential. I find myself believing that the picture I’ve chosen to illustrate won’t make any sense unless I include the entire background. Unsurprisingly, the feedback I get from my writing partners echoes this—“Too much explaining—what’s the real story here? Focus on the moment.”
In the next draft or piece, I take those notes to heart and push the zoom lens forward until all the extraneous background has been cropped out. All the tiny details of the moment come into extreme focus. I self-edit for sparseness, for the brevity that feels so elusive. I try to let single conversations do the work of pages and pages of explanation. Then, my writing partners pry into the carefully framed shot—“I want to know more about why he’s like this, why this moment matters. Give me a little background.”
It occurs to me that while the viewfinder of my camera seems to work just fine, the zoom lens is all screwed up. I can’t seem to find the middle ground, the place where the moment is the main focus, but there’s just enough setting that the moment makes sense. I know it can be done. I’ve read what feels like millions of flash essays that have done it so well. And long ago, before the grief and the healing, before the loss, I even wrote a couple of them myself.
Looking for inspiration for my messy essay drafts, I comb through my email history for messages between me and my dad. Links to lighting fixtures for the house we renovated together. Christmas lists fired off the day after Halloween. But more than any of that—photographs from his many shooting trips to area parks and historical sites. Restorations of old family snapshots that age almost ruined. Perfectly framed photos he spent hours capturing, and then hours more perfecting in Photoshop.
At the bottom of each email was his name and a quote I’d seen a million times—“f/8… and be there.” He had been ending emails that way for years, but I’d never given the quote a second thought. I dug around, and found countless mentions of it on photography websites and blogs. Coined by noted spot news photographer Arthur Fellig, it essentially means, forget about the fancy technique and theatrics. Just go to the most basic setting (f/8) and be present and ready for whatever comes. It’s the photographer’s “keep it simple, stupid.”
In typical dad fashion, he may have buried the lede, but he gave me exactly what I needed at precisely the right moment. I realize that, now that I’m writing with purpose and direction again, I’ve been futzing with the camera settings and contorting my body so I could find just the right angle. I’ve been screwing with the zoom, toggling from portrait to landscape, muting the flash or burning it too bright. No wonder I haven’t been able to create the picture I want. No wonder everything I do feels like too much, or too little.
So now, I’m returning to my drafts with that quote at the front of my mind. What does it look like to keep my internal camera on its most basic setting? How do I stop looking for the perfect shot, and simply be present for whatever moments await me? Will I ever figure out what truly belongs in the frame, and what I can afford to crop out? Like any good photographer—like my dad—I’m going to keep hitting the shutter and have faith that sooner or later, I’ll figure it out.
Rae Pagliarulo is the Associate Editor of Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living as a resource development consultant. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.
September 8, 2020 § Leave a comment
We are posting one of our September Craft Essays a bit early to celebrate the recent release of Rebecca McClanahan’s new book, In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays (Red Hen Press). In this craft contribution, Nancy Geyer talks with McClanahan, a frequent Brevity contributor over the years, about the crafting of her memoir, with a focus on conveying setting.
Here’s an excerpt,
Nancy Geyer: In one of your craft essays for Brevity, “Forest in the Trees,” you mention recurring patterns or motifs as a way to unify a book. They can also reinforce the feel of a place, right? I’m thinking of your squirrels and park benches.
Rebecca McClanahan: Yes, recurring motifs seem a natural way to unify a book and to situate the reader in a place. And you’re right about animals and park benches! Squirrels do indeed scamper now and then through the book’s pages, but quite a few other creatures make appearances as well—pigeons and ducks, including the duckling in the Hans Christian Andersen statue, and the dogs in the park, and even the baby bird that the homeless man shows me nesting in the lining of his jacket.
And yes, the park bench was such an important part of my experience of New York—not only as my own physical (if temporary) stake on the landscape and a place from which to view the scene, but also as an opportunity for conversations with strangers, who were always eager to share their stories and their sometimes strange but always intriguing wisdom. In that way, a park bench is where the public and private meet, right? Which seems to echo the experience of living in New York. At least my own experience during the time we lived there.
Now, take a moment to pop over and read the full interview here.
August 26, 2020 § 6 Comments
Shortly after the seriousness of our pandemic became known, essayist Justin Hocking gave himself a challenge: perform 100 erasures on Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal in 100 Days. Hocking is about 90 or so days into his project, and has released an initial chapbook in PDF and printed zine form: WHITE OUT: ERASING TRUMP.
As our stay-at-home protocols continue, Hocking is considering extending the “100 day” time challenge, because, as he says, “I’d like to keep executing the erasures right up until the November election.” We caught up with him to ask about erasure prose, politics, and pandemic projects.
Dinty W Moore: I’m intrigued by your Trump erasures for a number of reasons, but one of them is how your work stretches the creative nonfiction genre. Erasure poetry has become common enough, thanks to writers such as Matthea Harvey and Mary Ruefle, but that form most often creates a new poem out of someone else’s words. I’ve seen prose erasure too, but in many cases it results in a sort of poetry as well. What strikes me about your Trump project, however, is that you’re still creating a work of nonfiction: you are using Trump’s words (or maybe the words of his ghost writer) to create an alternate biography of Trump, but still, I think, with the goal of reporting truth. Does it feel that way to you?
Justin Hocking: I think what keeps me engaged with the project – and what keeps me coming back daily to a source text that I find distasteful on so many levels – is the element of the unexpected. Every morning I flip through my copy of Art of the Deal, I really have zero idea what will happen. Sometimes what emerges has a kind of cadence and rhythm that feels like poetry to me, and these tend to be my personal favorites. The Dada-ist absurdity and ridiculous quality of the work keeps me entertained, too. What I could have never expected, though – and what I think you’re getting at – is the way a text published in 1987 can yield a kind of reportage that responds directly to actual events unfolding in 2020.
I’m thinking particularly of pieces like the one created days after the murder of George Floyd, when Trump hid from protesters in the presidential bunker: “I’m/in the/basement/of distressed property.” In another more recent piece, the speaker describes using “very large security people” to keep the streets “free of rights,” and states “I/require/t/ear gas.” This one hit home here in Portland, where we’re concerned about the long-term effects to human health and the environment from relentless CS gas attacks on peaceful protesters. So yes, I haven’t previously considered WHITE OUT in the specific context of creative nonfiction, but the process and results do often have a kind of essayistic quality.
DWM: I notice you allow yourself small drawings – the White House for instance, on the bunker page – as well as erasures. Was that planned all along, or did the idea of drawings present itself by surprise?
JH: I launched the project just using Wite-Out, without ornamentation or color. Then I spotted the opportunity to create a visually striking image of Trump in his bunker by drawing the White House above an all-black box encasing the line “basement/of distressed property.” Drawing the White House felt risky, because my representational art skills are so basic. And I currently only have one copy of Art of the Deal, so there’s not much room for error. But the positive response on social media emboldened me to continue adding visual elements. And to add more color with paint pens: metallic gold, silver, pink, red and orange. The more recent pieces have a kind of abstract minimalist quality that I’m really enjoying. It’s a bit of a silly project, on the face of it, but the daily process feels like a satisfying culmination of my desire to keep busting down boundaries between poetry, prose, visual art, activism, and DIY publishing.
DWM: You are not just busting down boundaries, you are accomplishing something – a quantifiable page count, an identifiable project with a start date and an end date – during a time that many writers find themselves stuck, without words, so distracted by pandemic worries and political turmoil to find any focus. Was that your intent all along, or a lucky accident?
JH: I appreciate the encouragement, Dinty, especially from a writer whose work and aesthetics I admire so deeply. To be perfectly honest, I currently have close to zero bandwidth for my “regular” fiction and creative nonfiction (including another book-length memoir project), for various reasons. Feeling exhausted by our new Covid reality is one reason, certainly. Wanting to make more space to celebrate and amplify the voices of writers of color is another. The Trump erasure project does feel like a lucky gift in this particularly charged political moment, in that it allows me to truncate an authoritarian white supremacist’s bluster on a daily basis, rather than attempting to recount my own relatively privileged life experiences over the course of two or three hundred pages. Though it would be disingenuous to claim the project exists entirely beyond the scope of my own ego or my privileged position in the literary world, of course.
On a more personal note, I want to commiserate with anyone out there experiencing a creative drought during these times. I’ve survived a couple periods of pretty severe illness in my life, when erasures were the only form of “writing” I could manage. I highly recommend the erasure process as a form of creative medicine and/or political activism for anyone who craves it. I also hope to witness more folks making erasures on The Art of the Deal or other similar texts – beyond my own work, I’d love to see this continuing to transform into a minor movement. A cheap paperback copy, a pencil and some Liquid Paper are all it takes to begin.
DWM: What else can you share about your odd and fascinating project?
JH: Just a quick shout out to a few writers and works that inspired the WHITE OUT project: The Place of Scraps by Canadian First Nations writer Jordan Abel; Expecting Something Else by A.M. O’Malley; comedian Sarah Cooper’s Trump lip synchs; and all the students who’ve made their own Art of the Deal erasures in our writing courses at Evergreen State College and Portland State University. Also keep your eyes peeled for Erase The Patriarchy: An Anthology of Erasure Poetry, edited by Isobel O’Hare, that drops in August 2020 from University of Hell Press.
Learn more about Hocking’s WHITE OUT: ERASING TRUMP and purchase a PDF at his website: http://www.justinhocking.net/ The PDF e-zines are pay-what-you-will, with all proceeds benefiting Portland’s Black Resilience Fund.
Justin Hocking is the former Executive Director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center. He is the author of the Oregon Book Award-winning memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, and a chapbook of hybrid poetry/prose entitled PS: The Wolves. He teaches creative nonfiction and publishing at Portland State University.