What Metallica’s “Black Album” Teaches Us About Writing Briefly

October 22, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Brendan O’Meara

Thirty years ago, Metallica’s self-titled record Metallica, better known as ‘The Black Album,’ was released. It was Metallica’s fifth studio album and was a watershed moment for the band in terms of sound and, more important, brevity.

Metallica had made a name for itself with epic seven-, eight-, nine-minute-long songs, but it was ‘The Black Album’ where the four key players wanted to challenge themselves not by making increasingly epic songs with more intricate time signatures, but something more welterweight.

They wanted to reach more people, and in order to do so, they needed to cut the fat.

What can we, as writers, learn from this pivot?

Lars Ulrich, the band’s de facto spokesperson and drummer, said on the first episode of The Metallica Podcast, “Is it easier to write a short song or a long song? I would say it’s easier to write a long song. The hardest thing to do is edit yourself.”

It’s incumbent upon the writer to pen the shortest possible work, no matter the length. The editing down comes with constant rigor and self-questioning, self-reflection: Do I need this? Do I really need this? Aw, dammit, no!

We can’t fall in love with a great sentence or paragraph or guitar solo or lyric if it’s not in service of the piece. The floors of great artists are littered with masterpieces.

And even if you love a great turn of phrase, or an overly verbose exhibition of your lyrical pyrotechnics, you might be getting in the way of the message. Where are my footnote writers out there? You know who you are.

James Hetfield, lead singer and lyricist said on Episode 2 of The Metallica Podcast, “Drawing the listener in by not overplaying. Their ears get bigger to hear what you’re doing and it draws them in. Through subtlety, you can make more dynamics … Simplify stuff. Don’t be so fancy.”

This takes an incredible amount of restraint because if you can shred, why wouldn’t you shred? It means checking the ego and asking yourself, again, how does this serve the song, the essay, the book? Are you trying to be too funny? Are you undercutting your narrative with a gag, too much telling, a flourish better left on the bench? Ulrich said much of their earlier music, certainly on the album that preceded ‘The Black Album,’ was “self indulgent.” To get past this, strip it down and ask more and more of the words left behind to carry the day.

By keeping things as lean as possible, there’s nowhere for the message or the story to hide. If we surrender to the story, anything unnecessary melts off the skeleton and, as Hetfield says, the ear gets bigger, drawing them in.

And this isn’t to say iron out every wrinkle, every ounce of weirdness that you bring to the page. Part of what makes a piece snap, crackle, and pop is the you-ness you bring to a subject. That can be a unique take, your language, and even your ability to appear in the piece as a guide.

Hetfield managed to cut open his veins more from ‘The Black Album,’ and what he found was a greater connection to the audience. Again, it wasn’t self-indulgent, but in relaying a delicately worded personal trauma, it let the audience feel seen.

Matt Wardlaw of Ultimate Classic Rock writes, “The situations were getting vaguer and connecting with broader audiences. ‘I’ started showing up in Metallica’s lyrics more and staying. Hetfield’s characters weren’t getting strapped to an electric chair or chopping their breakfast on a mirror anymore, but the anger, aggression and fear were stronger than ever in the whipping boys and scapegoats that reached millions.”

For the memoir or personal essay writer, it’s not enough to have had this weird/quirky/traumatic experience. It has to serve the reader in some way. This way the reader can overlay her own experience on yours. You dissolve away, you become a vessel for the reader’s experience. You, in effect, become invisible, but all present.

In physics, we talk about density. A cube of lead the size of dice is heavier than an equal mass of aluminum that’s several times “bigger.” That’s packing a punch in a small package, and that’s the great lesson in Metallica’s ‘Black Album,’ that it sacrificed zero power in going shorter, finding freedom in tighter confines.

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Brendan O’Meara hosts The Creative Nonfiction Podcast and is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. You can follow him on Twitter @CNFPod. Better yet, sign up for his newsletter at brendanomeara.com.

A Review of Brenda Miller’s A Braided Heart

October 21, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Kelly K. Ferguson

Last week I found myself wandering Ellis Hall in Ohio University. Back when I was a creative writing grad student, I lurked all the time, acting as if I had official business, but really on the lookout for company, which I usually found. But that was seven years ago, and we’re in the second year of a pandemic. Ellis Hall has since been renovated to resemble a Hampton Inn. The dusty hardback copies of Ivanhoe? Recycled. The bat under the trash can? Disposed. No sensible person would miss how the stairwells used to smell of baby diapers. The clank of an opening door echoed and I scurried out.

The above is what Brenda Miller would call a container scene. My scene is meant to demonstrate particular loneliness, the loneliness a writer feels for other writers. The German word for that feeling is Schrifstellersehnsucht.

Schrifsteller = writer

Sehnsucht = longing

In A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form, Brenda Miller weaves short essays of her writing life with craft lessons. The book is divided into three sections (of course!). The first centers around memoir of Miller’s writing life, the second on craft, and the third reflects on writing community.

Any follower of Brevity recognizes Brenda Miller as a good friend to creative nonfiction. Perhaps you’ve read her classic essay “Swerve,” or Miller writing about writing “Swerve.” Miller may not have invented the lyric essay, but she has made containers such as the hermit crab, collage, and braided essay accessible to instructors and writers.

If Miller’s Tell it Slant (co-authored with Suzanne Paola) is a chalkboard crammed with notes, A Braided Heart is a pot of perfectly steeped tea with two cups. The book is a testament to the tensile strength of essay. No matter how the form is bent, so long as the writer remains in conversation, the connection maintains, this friendship through words.

While I was a grad student at Ohio University, Brenda Miller was a visiting writer and I picked her up from the Columbus airport. I was nervous and excited and took a detour to Canal Winchester, the exit where strip malls and car dealerships go to thrive. Losing our visiting writer to the machinations of neoliberal industry would be bad. I rambled without pause to cover my anxiety until I figured out how to merge back onto the proper road.

Miller remained good company throughout.

Miller’s talent is to make the structure of her lyrical essays feel natural, as if they couldn’t read any other way. “Writing Inside the Web” connects a story about a Free Box at a lodge, to a writing retreat, to a list of internal brain machinations, to Simon and Garfunkel.

“…the mind, given the right conditions, will become a soft receiving ground, so full of inviting crannies that thoughts, images, ideas can drift there and settle like pollen.” (“On Thermostats”)

Last Friday, I sat down to finish this review, and wound up writing a hermit crab essay instead, which I credit to the juju provided from A Braided Heart.

When I taught the hermit crab essay as a graduate student, I would show this video of a pet hermit crab changing shells. Without their container, the hermit crab is vulnerable, disproportionate, a hunchback out of the belfry. At the end of the video, when the crab slips into their new home, a woman gasps, “Ooooh! There she goes!” This always made the students laugh.

That laughter was the sound of freedom from the five-paragraph essay.

Miller writes how concrete forms allow for “inadvertent revelations,” where the writer surrenders control. “Revelation, or discovery, emerges organically from the writing; the essay now seems to reveal information about the writer, rather than the writer revealing these tidbits directly to the reader.”

Confession: Schrifstellersehnsucht doesn’t exist. My partner is Austrian and finds this idea of a “German word” for everything perplexing. He explains that German has more compound words, so it’s easier to string words together, but that doesn’t mean the words are real.

“But what would the German word be, if you made one up?” I ask.

He knows I’ve been lonely for other writers.

The day after I’d visited Ellis Hall, I ran into my former creative nonfiction professor, Eric LeMay, in a market parking lot. Even as my chatter floated in the air, I wondered why I would go on about lurking for the smell of baby diapers, out of all the things I could say. Our exchange was over in a minute.

“Maybe see you somewhere, someday,” I said. I meant a reading or a gathering.

“Maybe,” he said through his mask.

The inside of my car was silent. I thought, this is a somewhere, someday.

“What I’m trying to say is the lyric essay happens in the gaps. In the pause before the next breath demands to be taken,” Brenda Miller.

Two wide flat mossy rocks sit like invitations in front of my house. A father and his daughter walk by most days. The girl always runs up to the rocks, and leaps from one to the other. 

“Whee!” she says, but only when she’s in the air.

___

Kelly K. Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Storysouth, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Cincinnati Review, and other publications. In the past ten years, she has moved from southern Louisiana to southern Ohio back to southern Louisiana on to southern Utah back to southern Ohio, where she has planted asparagus in the hopes of yielding a tender spear in three to five years. 

Two Humorists Walk Into a Blog

October 19, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Sarah Garfinkel & Julie Vick

Two humor writers walk into a bar.

The first one says, “Ouch!”

The second one says, “No, go with ‘Yikes!’ because hard sounds like K are funnier.”

Julie Vick and Sarah Garfinkel are a lot funnier than that. For the launch of Julie’s new book, Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?): An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving Parenthood, Julie and Sarah (assistant editor for The Rumpus’ Funny Women column) talked about blending genres, building an online writing community, and teaching humor writing.

SARAH: In your book, you seamlessly weave personal anecdotes about parenting with satire. There is also extremely practical advice, such as this recommendation on getting through a baby shower: “Divide up the guests based on who likes playing games versus who doesn’t like to. Then let the extroverts play games while the introverts talk quietly or just sit in the corners eating cute tiny finger foods.” How did you find this balance between satire and nonfiction?

Julie Vick

JULIE: The hybrid format came about over time. I debated whether the book should be straight satire or have some actual advice and landed on something in between, partially because I had read other parenting humor books that did something similar and partially because I thought some actual advice might be helpful for the audience. On the advice of my editor, I also worked in more personal anecdotes in spots, and I think that also gives it another interesting dimension.

Something I love about your humor is how you pick up on subtle things people do and say. In your book, you write that introverts are good listeners. How do you think introversion has influenced your humor writing and ability to notice the humor in everyday life?

I think being more of a listener/observer does help me notice small details that can be useful for humor writing. In the first humor writing class I took, the instructor told us to notice when we were noticing something. So now I’ve trained myself to make a mental note (or an actual note in my smartphone’s note app that only sometimes makes sense to me later) when something seems like a good detail or potential premise for a piece.

Sarah Garfinkel

I also really like observational humor, where you point out the humor in everyday life (one example is one of my favorite headlines from The Onion). So, I gravitate toward writing those pieces which thus makes me look out for details more.

You are also skilled at community building and supporting other writers. How have you built your online writing community?

I think the short answer is I just try to be nice and a good literary citizen. I share others’ writing and interact with other writers’ social media posts (even if it just involves a gif reply which should take two seconds to send but sometimes takes me closer to 20 minutes because I need to search for the exact right one). Over time, I’ve made a lot of writer friends on Twitter and in Facebook writing groups.

I’ve also forged friendships at in-person writing conferences (sometimes meeting people in person that I first met online). Even though conferences are draining for me as an introvert, I always get a ton out of going to them and really miss being able to attend in real life.

As a writing instructor at the University of Colorado Denver, you’ve taught humor writing (among other subjects). How has teaching humor writing influenced your own writing?

One thing I’ve realized is that some people think you are either born funny or not, but the truth is most babies are not great at telling jokes. There are actually several techniques you can learn to use when writing humor—things like the “rule of three” and using hard sounds (concepts that are outlined in this New York Times piece). So people need more of a growth mindset about their ability to write funny!

As with other writing, just studying humor can help too—reading more of it and then choosing some pieces to deconstruct the structure of or highlight where the jokes are and see how they are working. I had some success with humor writing before studying it more formally but learning more about it has only helped me improve. I can now see a lot of underlying craft in things that may seem really simple on the surface.

Online parenting forums inspire several memorable jokes in the book. What is your advice for satire writers who are seeking inspiration?

One of my biggest forms of humor inspiration is frustration. If I’m feeling irritated about something—whether it’s about parenting or my inability to pick out a good melon—then that is often the kernel of an idea for a humor piece. I could write a journal entry or vent to a friend about these things, but turning them into satirical pieces is often a way to process the frustrations other than just ranting (although sometimes the first draft is more of a rant). There is definitely something therapeutic about turning your frustrations into humor.

__________________________________

Julie Vick is a writer whose work has appeared in New Yorker Daily Shouts, Real Simple, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She is the author of Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?): An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving Parenthood (Countryman Press, 2021).

Sarah Garfinkel is a humor writer and educator. Her writing appears in New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Electric Literature. Sarah is an assistant editor of the Funny Women column at The Rumpus. You can find more of her work at sarahgarfinkelwriting.com.

Revision and the Multi-Faceted Self

October 11, 2021 § 8 Comments

By Amy Beth Sisson

My sister recently sent me a photograph of a piece of paper that had hung on my parents’ bulletin board for decades. It was a poem I had written at age nine, and my current, much older self could not resist revising the words of my child self. Common advice to writers is to let a manuscript sit in between writing and revision, but my example is extreme—most don’t contemplate a fifty-year timespan. This experience made me question the relationship between writing, revision, and the self. 

Maybe the passage of time works to allow us to revise because of the nature of the self. Maybe the gap in time between writing and revision works because the passage of time allows for new facets of the self to come into focus; facets who can stand in more strongly for the reader rather than for the creator. 

Many writers, such as Anne Lamott, talk about this from the perspective of the creation of work. The idea that the revising self is different from the writing self is useful when sitting down to write a first draft. They recommend finding a way to turn off your inner critic. Various techniques are useful for getting into the creative and generative mindset such as free-writing, walking, and meditation. But how do you go about turning the critic back on when revising?

The word critic can mean a lot of different things. I don’t think it’s ever useful to summon the stereotypical teacher with a red pen. I prefer to think of my inner critic as a stand-in for my ideal imagined reader, the person I am trying to connect with. When revising, how can you shift your mind from the wildly creative to the place where you have empathy for the reader’s needs. What do the readers need to know, what might resonate with their experience, what will raise useful ideas and questions for them? When revising, I am striving to access deep empathy for the person interacting with my words.

So, if you can, put the manuscript in a virtual drawer for a time. Think about what the optimal length would be for you. Too long and the revising self might be too far from the material. Stephen King recommends taking a six-week break between drafting and revising. If you take this tack, be accepting of the vicissitudes of life that can interfere with connecting to the revision. Are any of us the same self as we were before the upheavals of 2020? And, of course, if you have a deadline all bets are off. 

Here are some things that have worked for me to get out of my head and into the reader’s. Most of these can be useful regardless of the genre.

  1. Move to another room. (I’d say go to a coffee shop if it were not for the Delta variant.) Have you ever gone into a room to do something only to find that you don’t know why you are there? Use this phenomenon to get in touch with your revising self.
  2. Try rewriting from a different point of view. When you drafted you consciously or unconsciously selected a point of view to tell the tale. Thinking about the story from another point of view can break you out of assumptions and bring you closer to the reader’s experience. Even if you don’t keep the revision’s point of view, it can inform the work.
  3. Try rewriting in a different tense. Changing tenses is a way to achieve a similar effect. If you switch from the present tense to the past tense you may give the reader more scope to understand the context of the events. If you switch from the past to the present tense you may give the reader more of a sense of immediacy. Again, you don’t have to keep this change, but it can be a useful exercise to help you have a new vision.
  4. Color code the piece in some way that helps you to see the structure of the work. Play with it.  Some people will highlight specific parts of speech. In longer works some people highlight themes or characters. This can give you a sense of the balance.
  5. Work on another genre. One of my critique partners, a short story writer, recently started revising a draft of a children’s book. She found that she was energized when she went back to revising her short story. Working on something for a very different audience helped her break out of her assumptions about her readers.

The next strategies I use help because they allow you to hear as well as see your words. I’m listing them in the order of my preference.

  1. Read it out loud. This is very helpful but sometimes I read what I think is on the page rather than what is really on the page and don’t even realize it. 
  2. Have the computer read it to you. This is slightly better for me because the computer will never fill in missing words, but the electric voice can be hard for me to focus on.
  3. Read it to someone. Having an actual person as my audience forces me to attend in a way that I don’t do when I’m alone.
  4. Have someone read it to you. This, for me, is the most effective strategy. I follow along on the page while my generous friend reads my words. I hear where they trip up. I hear where they feel awkward voicing something I wrote. If I can’t find a willing reader, Sometimes I will read something into a recording device on my phone and play back the recording.

Experiment with the ideas above to see what works for you to shift your perspective.

____

Amy Beth Sisson is struggling to emerge, toad-like, from the mud in a small town outside of Philly. Her poetry has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and The Night Heron Barks. Her fiction has appeared in The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia 2021Enchanted Conversation and Sweet Tree Review. This fall, she left her day job in software development and started an MFA in Poetry at Rutgers Camden. You can follow her work at amybethsisson.com

The Joy of Detail in Nonfiction

October 4, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Sonya Huber

“Detail” is a word I say so often that I maybe don’t even hear it anymore. But the benefits and the joy of chasing detail in the real world and putting it on the page never get old. Maybe it’s the way that, once you summon those details—not the eyeglasses in the dish, but the pink/mauve frames with your old prescription in the cobalt glass butter dish you found at a yard sale in Georgia—you’re summoned back to yourself. I am summoned back to myself and summoned back to the world where I live. I wonder sometimes if this trick, too, is the core of teaching writing, that once you teach someone the magic trick of making the world shine, making the everyday talk back, the person might never forget that feeling.

In this act—stop time and linger not on forward motion but on color, shape, shadow, substance, material, weight, origin, impression—there is the secret to living forever, temporarily, the secret to time travel. And, too, there is the subtle compassion for one’s self that I find so difficult to call on at the edge of the present moment. In looking to the past, handling these objects, choosing them, wondering what I stored in the butter dish that left a mysterious rust stains etched in the glass, I remember a self with a different kind of broken heart. The details bring my past and present selves together, and the doubling adds dimension, then makes the present richer for its shadow.

I’ve wanted to write an account of a day, morning to night, for years, spurred on first by the beautiful stream of consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway. When Ander Monson began his lovely project, “What Happened,” he offered everyone a day, pre-chosen. Writers who signed on had to make an essay, or an entry, about that very day and whatever it brought us. It was amazing, a nonfiction kind of Christmas: we were living an essay together in real time! (You can read collections of these on the “Essay Daily” website.) After I participated in that, I wanted to see if maybe I could do a bigger one. And then eventually that want came to fruition in my new book, Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day.

It’s about getting arrested at a climate protest in 2019, and the day itself is the day I go to court for that. So I kind of cheat because there’s dramatic action, but the substance of it is in my boring thoughts ordering tacos in Grand Central Station, in my awkwardness and the crap that’s in the bottom of my shoulder bag. In sifting through the mundane material.

I read somewhere, or heard, that faith is an underlying confidence that there’s an order to things. Not that the order is good, or that it’s protective, but simply that there’s a pattern that might mean something unseen. I think I like chasing the details in nonfiction because I glimpse, just out of the corner of my eye, mutely and partially, a wink of light in pursuing those details in order to intuit the pattern of myself and the mark I make in the large cobalt butter dish of the world.
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Sonya Huber is the author of the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance MemoirHer work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University.

So That’s Why I’m Writing These Pages: An Aspiring Memoirist’s Response to Joy Harjo’s Wisdom

September 29, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Margaret Moore

“What will we know when this page is done? Who will we be?”

I sat in my living room as U. S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo recited these words during the virtual 2021 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference keynote address. I was engaged in the event, drinking up the magnificent art of Harjo’s lines as they mixed with melodies played by her band in Tulsa, Oklahoma. With the long work week catching up to me, my mind faded in its attention to detail, though, listening to the poetry as something relaxing.

“What will we know when this page is done? Who will we be?”

I jumped when Harjo posed these questions, sitting back up from the slightly reclined position I had been lounging in my motorized wheelchair.  

Harjo was describing the troubled state of the world. I’m sure her lines were intended to ponder the wisdom that will emerge from the pandemic and current societal tensions. I couldn’t help but take these words more literally, though, considering how they describe my writing process.

I have been writing my first memoir for thirteen or fourteen years.

I am 24 years old now.

Yes, I started writing my book as a fourth grader.

I still have some drafts from my early youth. With misspelled words like ‘delishus,’ lines like “Lois made me chocolate pudding and it was yummy,” and attempts to depict every detail of my school day, every friendship I had, and every story that my teachers told about the goofy stuff in their home lives—something I’m sure they would (not) appreciate—they make me laugh and inspire me on days when writing seems impossible.

I was pegged as a writer in second grade, when my teacher recognized my talents. Having almost lost my life at birth due to a prolapsed umbilical cord, I grew up as a physically disabled child with a wheelchair and communication device. My father died of cancer when I was a baby, and my brothers and I were raised by a single mother. Because of my mom’s initiatives to find the best school system and assistive technology, I have succeeded in academics and extracurricular activities. My teacher thought my story could inspire others and suggested that I write a memoir. I had loved writing since I composed my very first story in her class. Her vision became my dream.

Knowing my strengths and desire to pursue a writing career, my high school guidance counselor put me in a senior creative writing class as a freshman. I also took an advanced creative writing independent study as a senior, where my project was to draft my memoir.

“I know why this is important to you—I’ve seen you live it for three-going-on-four years,” my teacher said each time he reviewed a chapter. “But you need to show readers that don’t know you why it is. Why is it significant that you played soccer in your walker on a team and did Girl Scouts with your able-bodied friends? What is your ‘so what?’”

I didn’t know the answers to these questions. I was told that I was partaking in activities typically labeled ‘off-limits’ to people with disabilities and that I should share my experiences so others may find their way to similar endeavors. I wanted my book to help people. That’s all I knew.

Part of me wondered whether I would ever be able to adequately depict my intended ‘so what’ and that, if I was not able to, my memoir would merely seem like a collection of interesting anecdotes.

Now pursuing my MFA in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, I’m rewriting the scenes that remain major fixtures of my story—those that show me participating in activities alongside my abled-bodied peers.

One of the most influential gems I have gained from the program is that I need to provide vivid descriptions of what it physically and emotionally feels like when I move my tight muscles and use assistive equipment. I’ve learned to dissect the actions that my family, school staff, and I take to make activities accessible, giving readers an in-depth look at these accommodations.

I recently rewrote a scene in which I joined Girl Scouts at five years old. I describe how I did not have the muscle coordination to form the three-fingered Girl Scout sign and how, to compensate, my mother guided my hand into position and held it like that at every event. I intended for this scene simply to show my physical experience of scouting, but, after rereading it, the themes at the heart of my memoir leapt out. There were the concepts of inclusion that made all the difference in my life. There was my mother bridging the gap between my abilities and the requirements of able-bodied activities. I suddenly found my ‘so what’—that individuals coping with disabilities and adversity can overcome barriers to participate in life’s ordinary and extraordinary activities.

My scenes, I realized, needed to be just like this Girl Scout one, magnifying actions that my family, my school, and I have taken to ensure inclusion. They must have layers showing what it felt like to physically move while supported by others or assistive technology and how it felt emotionally to navigate obstacles.

My book is by no means a guide possessing all the answers for how inclusion must be implemented for every disabled person in the world, but I hope it can be a source of inspiration that offers ideas on overcoming challenges.

“What will we know when this page is done?” Joy Harjo asks. “Who will we be?”

If we delve deeply into details of our physical and emotional experiences, we will find ourselves discovering who we are as writers. At the end of the page, we will be warriors who have successfully weathered life’s most grueling terrain. We will be fierce advocates for inclusion, justice, and peace. We will be leaders guiding others to a more accessible and compassionate world.

_____

Margaret Moore is a 2020 Magna Cum Laude graduate of Fairfield University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing. She is currently an MFA candidate with a dual concentration in nonfiction and poetry in Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. She interns as an editor at Woodhall Press and works as an ambassador for PRC-Saltillo. Her writing has appeared in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, Independent Catholic News, Positive Writer, Two Drops of Ink: A Literary Blog, and How We Are among other publications.

Lessons in Memoir from Self-Portraiture

September 17, 2021 § 1 Comment

Our new issue includes a fascinating Craft Essay from author Kim Pittaway exploring the need to convey depth and shadow when writing the self, how “a slimly pen-stroked ‘I’ isn’t a portrait,” and what we can learn from visual artists and self-portraiture.

Her essay includes links and examples, and a series of excellent, unusual prompts such as:

What catches your eye? Throughout a day or a weekend, snap images of where your gaze settles: the irritating scuff on the white-painted stair riser heading up to your bedroom; the dog’s wagging tale as its dream delights it; the way the water pools on the barbecue lid in the rain. Print out the images. What insights might a stranger discovering your collection draw from these photos?

Who’s in your group? If you were to paint a group self-portrait of you at 17, who else would be in the frame? Describe them—both the real people and the influential figures who loomed large (your Virgin Marys). Now step back and describe yourself as each of them sees you. Try it at 27. 57. 77.

Wish I’d been there: What moment in history would you most like to have witnessed? Research the scene—and then place yourself in it, but at its fringes. Are you Caravaggio holding the lantern? The short-order cook at the Greensboro Sit-In? The kid behind the kid who caught a World Series home run baseball? Be as true to you as you can be: What do you see of yourself in this imagined scene that you might miss revealing in a more factual moment?

You can read Pittaway’s full craft essay here.

Writing the Animal Other

September 16, 2021 § Leave a comment

In a new Brevity Craft Essay, Heather Durham examines how authors like Sy Montgomery, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, and Brian Doyle have redefined the ways in which we depict animals in our nonfiction.

She writes:

It seems simple enough. In creative nonfiction we don’t lie. We may write other humans, even strangers, as long as we do our best to learn what we can on multiple levels and from various sources, cognizant of power dynamics and wary of stereotypes. But if non-human animals are involved, we’ve learned, best treat them as objects, just part of the scenery. Humans are so special, so uniquely evolved in the animal kingdom that we couldn’t possibly share anything beyond the most rudimentary biology.

Which is, of course, nonsense.

Science seems to be coming around faster than writing conventions, thanks to animal behaviorists and neurobiologists who’ve continued to wonder, ask new questions, and—like any diligent writer—reject assumptions. The closer and the longer they’ve looked at other animals, the more those traits we’d thought exclusively human—complex languages, tool use, self-consciousness, play, reasoning, foresight, remembering, deceit, feeling grief and joy—have been observed in other animals. Not imagined or assumed, but scientifically confirmed.

Read the rest of her fascinating essay here in the September issue of Brevity.

Flash Diagnosis: Illness as Craft

September 9, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Sarah Fawn Montgomery

When my father became ill, time stopped, and with it, the words.

It was not that I was unfamiliar with writing with and through and perhaps because of pain—much of my writing centers on disability, my most recent book, Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, scrawled during anxiety attacks, OCD compulsions, and PTSD flashbacks.

I am well familiar with writing with pain, hunched over the keyboard with a muscle spasm, trying to finish a page before fatigue sets in. Sometimes I take time away from writing when I’m in pain, a practice disabled writers must accept despite the loud proclamation of “write every day” that comes from abled writers and writing programs. I write by hand when I cannot stare at a screen because of chronic migraines, or in bed when chronic infection takes a month, then six, to heal. I do not keep track of hours or words or any of the other writing milestones simply unavailable to disabled writers. I do not write to escape illness, rather I look to disability to guide my practice and craft. Disability and illness are essential to my writing—they shape my work as they shape my life.

But when my father was diagnosed with cancer—hugging me goodbye at the airport on Father’s Day, given a grave warning from physicians the next—I could not write. Perhaps it wasn’t the words that went, but rather the time, the sense that I had space stretched in front of me to make stories, space to live in the past of memoir rather than the present, which was painful and fleeting.

I was nearly finished with a book manuscript, but suddenly I could not conceive of a project that spanned many years when the narrative of my life compressed into the moment of diagnosis. The book was about my father and our complicated relationship, and I could not make myself finish writing, complete, end, and final words that sent me hazy and uncertain.

While my experience as a disabled writer means I am more prepared than most to create when pain is the only given, my experience with chronic illness has never involved such proximity to death. I am unsure how to create while witnessing its opposite, how to build worlds when my own is crumbling.

As before, I turn to diagnosis to lead my craft. My father’s illness means we exist in brief. Our conversations are short because he does not have energy, because he is grieving and does not want to talk. Our moments of joy—a procedure, the promise of a new treatment—are quick before the next disaster reveals itself on a CAT scan.

So I write in brief. It is hard to conceive of a far-reaching future, so I focus on single moments. It is hard to focus on a work that might outlast my father, so I write what I can accomplish while he is here. I am overwhelmed by grief and fear and the medical responsibility I have assumed as a medical proxy and the oldest daughter of eight, so I focus on what I can control—a few paragraphs, a short burst of memory.

Time does not operate the way it did before, so neither does my writing. I spend 16 hours flying from one side of the country to the next, moving backwards against the sun as though I am a time traveler. When I look at what I have written those many hours, it is less than 1,000 words; I have started and stopped a dozen pieces. Writing feels like duty and distraction, a task calling me away from the important work of caregiving, yet one whose pleasure and control I am desperate for.

I lose hours each day on hold to hospitals and physicians, am constantly living in another time zone. My father takes hours to eat the calories he used to consume in minutes. He stops eating altogether, convinced he would rather end the narrative himself than see how the story plays out on its own. My mother and I repeat ourselves over and over on the phone, spiraling, meandering like we are told to do when writing essays. We search for new ways to craft this narrative, though nothing provides the resolution we hope.

When I feel distracted, pulled in a dozen directions—phone calls and medical paperwork and treatment follow-ups and sorrowful calls with my mother and cheerful attempts to console my father—I remember that I am still living. I do not need to write this story now or at all. I do not need to write like I used to, can instead condense memory, search for the moments that give meaning to my life. I write as I exist—in flash, in short bursts, emotion and time compressed—the way a memory can come from nowhere and send you reeling.

Now my writing mirrors my living—it is brief and urgent, sharp and vital. I write flash because it is the only way I know to process the story of my life coming to an end. I write flash because it is the only way I can light up the dark.

It feels wrong, in many ways, to think of writing when I am grieving so, when living in the present rather than ruminating on the past is essential. But I write to make sense of the world, to understand how the man who made his living building the fences that bordered and controlled the world feels to watch his own borders and control slip away. I write to remember his easy grin when he sped up his work truck, fence posts and chain-link rattling in the bed, rushing down dusty California backroads to give me a tickle-belly, Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio and sunshine splayed across the dash.

I write to remember the sweet smell of sawdust on my father’s work boots, his strong calloused hands over my own as we placed our palms in wet cement to make ourselves last forever.

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Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018) and three poetry chapbooks. She recently edited a special “Experiences of Disability” issue of Brevity. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

But What About Mom?

September 8, 2021 § 15 Comments

By Helena de Bres

Every memoirist worries, at least a little and often a lot, about wronging their family, friends and lovers by writing about them. It’s probably impossible to create a good memoir without including people other than yourself in it. But as soon as you do that, you risk hurting, exposing, exploiting and betraying your subjects, some of whom you may deeply love.

We memoirists could just abandon the whole genre in light of these distressing facts. When encouraged by his nephew to write his autobiography, Freud replied: “A psychologically complete and honest confession of life  [. . .]  would require so much indiscretion […] about family, friends, and enemies, most of them still alive, that it is simply out of the question.” But for those of us who love writing memoir, that’s a big ask. So it’s tempting, instead, to seek an ethical quick fix that will let us keep writing our messy interpersonal histories with a clean conscience.

One option here is the Forget Them! approach. You might injure others when writing about them, this idea goes, but you shouldn’t let that stop you. William Faulkner wrote: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art … If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

Setting aside the sexism (how many Faulkners is that ode worth?), it’s implausible that the cause of literature trumps every interest of all of a writer’s subjects. Philosopher Felicia Ackerman notes that presumably no one would excuse Keats for torturing someone to get “Ode on a Grecian Urn” written. Once we admit that ethical constraint, why not others?

There’s also the point that not every writer rises to the level of Keats. In his memoir Family Man, Calvin Trillin proposes what he calls “the Dostoyevsky Test”: “If you have reason to believe that you’re another Dostoyevsky, there is no reason to be concerned about the effect what you write might have on the life of some member of your family…If you don’t have reason to believe that you’re another Dostoyevsky, you can’t.” I’m not sure I want to give even Dostoyevsky a free pass. Maybe sometimes a writer really should just let it rip for art, and let the human casualties pile up. But in the large majority of cases there’s likely to be a more decent alternative available that doesn’t leave art bleeding on the tracks instead.

A second option is Check your Intentions! Andre Dubus III said in an interview about his memoir Townie: “I had a conversation with the novelist Richard Russo, who’s a buddy of mine. I told him I was tortured about writing about my family, and he said, “Look, if this were me, I’d ask myself, Am I trying to hurt anybody with this book? Am I trying to skewer anybody? If the honest answer is no, I’m just trying to capture as honestly as I can what it was like for me, then I’d do it.’ It was such good advice.”

Was it, though? It’s certainly morally better to write without malice than with it. But that’s a pretty low bar. Writers can intend only the very best for those they write about, while inadvertently harming them, treating them unfairly, or violating their privacy. Shouldn’t we care about what our subjects have to say about the matter, rather than just what’s going on in our own heads?

The Obtain Consent! approach heads down that road, arguing that all that matters is whether or not a subject approves of how they’re portrayed. Some writers go to great efforts to inform or even collaborate with their subjects while writing, and commit to respecting any wishes they have about how they’re represented. Annie Dillard reports: “I’ve promised to take out anything that anyone objects to—anything at all.”

This approach rules out writing about people who can’t give informed consent, including children and people with severe cognitive disabilities. While writers should be careful in those cases, surely a total ban isn’t called for. Requiring consent would also cripple many memoirs written about those who don’t deserve to have their past deeds shielded. In other cases, obtaining consent wouldn’t be enough. Consensual exploitation remains morally problematic, even if less so than the nonconsensual kind.

A final ethical quick fix is Narrow Your Targets! Maybe writers should select only a subset of their associates to write about. How about those who deserve it? Anne Lamott’s widely cited dictum springs to mind here: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

While that’s funny, I don’t think it supports an open season on those who’ve wronged the writer. For one thing, if the motivation is mainly revenge, the act may not be justified: vengeance is a morally suspect motivation. For another, we generally think that retaliation for wrongs should be proportionate. Your ex-best-friend may have injured you, but your publishing a permanent record of the injury may do them much worse harm. And what at least some (not all!) wrongdoers deserve is compassion and forgiveness, especially if they’ve sincerely acknowledged their bad behavior and made a serious attempt to atone for it.

How about narrowing your targets to those who’ve left the planet? Many memoirists have waited till the deaths of loved or hated ones before doing a number on them. Presumably the idea is that you can’t harm someone after they’re gone. Your welfare can only go down if you notice it happening, right? And no one’s noticing anything from beyond the grave.

But harming someone isn’t the only way to wrong them in memoir: you can also violate their privacy, use them unjustly, or break a commitment not to write about them. These kinds of acts are plausibly wrong regardless of whether or not the victim hears about them, and it’s hard to see how someone’s being dead changes that fact.

It seems there’s no easy way out of the moral morass of writing a memoir. Any of us who care about doing the right thing will have to think long, hard and possibly agonizingly about how to balance our literary aims with the interests and rights of those whose lives we draw on. One upside is that we’re likely to learn a lot about our own values along the way. We might come out of the endeavor not just with a book or essay, but with a better sense of how we want to relate to our fellow humans in the future, in life as well as on the page. Fingers crossed our moms will still be speaking to us, too.
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Helena de Bres teaches philosophy at Wellesley College. Her book Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir is out this September with The University of Chicago Press. Her creative writing has appeared in The Point, Aeon, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review and The New York Times. She’s currently working on two books of creative nonfiction: a memoir about the nature and value of philosophy and a book on the philosophy of twins.

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