How to Dress Like a Writer

December 10, 2018 § 8 Comments

Weikers Author Photo With Bomber HatBy Ann Weikers

When I left corporate life to embark on an MFA in writing, I decided a style makeover was in order. I wanted to fit in, to look the part.

I cobbled together a winter wardrobe and arrived at my first residency in a snowstorm, decked out in a Mad Bomber hat and giant UGG boots pulled up over leggings, hoping to look a little less like the grandma I could easily be. For the summer residency I sported Birkenstocks and skinny rolled up jean shorts. With the addition of a hefty multi-zippered knapsack, I was set. Though I realized that throughout the country twelve-year-olds were clamoring for the identical wardrobe, I consoled myself with the conviction that all my choices were at least practical.

The bomber hat would keep my head dry and warm. Because it clasped firmly under my chin, it wouldn’t get carried off in a blizzard as I trudged across campus hoping not to die slipping on ice. Toward that end—not falling and breaking a hip—the UGG boots would be life savers. Their wide bottoms and deep treads would stabilize me like pontoons.

My Birkenstocks, which admittedly looked like something a troglodyte would wear if troglodytes wore shoes, with their German engineered cork footbed, had the added feature of preventing my arches from falling. My skinny shorts held in my tummy, the most welcome quality of any of my utilitarian threads.

To help me choose that wardrobe, I’d scrutinized website images of students gathering on campuses. I’d made two columns on a yellow legal pad, one headed “Purchase,” and one headed “Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead In.”  I was satisfied I’d made the right, albeit incredibly unattractive, purchases. And I was proud to have eschewed some of the other fads, the items on my “Wouldn’t Be Caught Dead In” list.

First is the modern version of the beret, the floppy beanie. I won’t wear a floppy beanie because I want warm ears. Worn fashionably, these hats must flop to the back or side of the head, leaving the ears exposed to subzero weather. Also, I won’t wear a floppy beanie because it reminds me of the hats atop the heads of the seven dwarves, most particularly Dopey. Dopey is happy, silly, speechless, bald as a baby, and portrayed as an awkward child. I ascribe much of his goofiness to his maladjusted purple cap.

Next on the “no” list: ripped jeans. This trend has been around for a long while, and somehow has not lost its appeal to many. There’s a certain impracticality to wearing holey jeans in single digit weather, but ripped jeans still abound in every season.

In the days when punk rock first came on the scene in the seventies, ripped clothing was just one element of punk’s anti-establishment dress code. Wearing torn clothing paid homage to the genre and was arguably a link to that form of art. Now, though, frayed, holey jeans are worn by everyone from infants to soccer moms, with no link to protest or art. No longer are ripped jeans an apropos cultural statement, especially when they are worn over diapers. The trend has lost its artistic anchor.

Finally, I’ll never wear bobby socks with shorts or skirts. Bobby socks in Mary Jane high heels were an essential part of the “goth” naughty schoolgirl trend years back. While I seldom see the tartan plaid tunics now, the ankle socks feature of the trend is strangely still alive. When I typed into the keyboard “Bobby Socks with mini-skirts,” my screen filled with porn site links. I quickly ended the search and deleted the search history.

On campus for my first Vermont College of Fine Arts Winter MFA Residency, I sat in the stunning high-ceilinged meeting hall called “The Chapel,” where students were being welcomed by the program director. Behind her on the stage rose the floor to ceiling pipes of an immense organ. What a beautiful place to begin.

The garb around me, bundling my fellow students, was the garb of practical people, all just trying to keep warm. Yes, there were one or two floppy beanies, but I saw no ripped jeans, no bobby socks with skirts. UGG boots were not de rigueur here.

I would see both ripped jeans and bobby socks in subsequent residencies, and even an evening gown and a full-on Western suit with bolo tie and cowboy hat at graduation. I would see rompers, revealing laced bodices, floor swishing skirts and miniskirts, pretty ensembles straight out of Talbots, everyday Levis and faded tees. In short, there was no uniform.

The clothes that had mattered to me, but likely to no one else, had served their purpose: to boost my confidence the tiniest notch as I first walked among that busy hive of writers with terror lurking beneath my cozy layers. So many were blessedly as self-conscious as I, equally alarmed at the prospect of the critiques we would face for the next two years. All were equally committed to getting our words on the page and getting it right. Whatever garb adorned the reader, the lecturer, the workshop leader, the fellow student, words quickly became the only important thing.

One of my writing teachers wisely said, “You don’t become a writer by donning a beret.” I get it. My bomber hat will never turn me into the next Joan Didion, but I’ll still wear it at my writing desk on chilly days, earflaps down to muffle distractions.
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Ann Weikers is a candidate for an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She received her J.D. from Villanova University School of Law and after decades in law firms and corporations, decided to change her wardrobe and become a writer. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband.

A Parting Letter to My Creative Writing Students

December 6, 2018 § 12 Comments

By Matthew Burnside

Burnside Author PhotoDear Student,

Certain lessons you will learn only with time, earned like scars, as you discover the weird little nuances and idiosyncrasies of your voice and what you have to offer total strangers through your words. My hope is that you do not forget that writing, more than mere therapy, can be so much: (1) an act of resistance to a material world at times, seemingly, bent on destroying the integrity of your spirit, your faith in something ineffable and unspeakable. (2) A way of making sense out of the great tumbling chaos – with all its inscrutable runes, myriad ecstasies and agonies. (3) And/or, more importantly perhaps, a means of helping others to make sense out of their own gnawing loneliness, grief, misery, madness . . . a way of reaching one’s hands across the careless void to haunt your readers with love—a depth of decency, empathy, understanding of which perhaps they didn’t even know they were deserving.

A quick note on rejection: It will come, and you will live beyond it, I promise. As it staggers you though, racking you with ruin, I pray you will not shirk from your task but develop thorns, as the blooming rose, and swim through those perceived defeats to discover the value of your struggling. Of always moving toward and not ever standing still, in love with your searching, with departing and not arriving. My hope is that you embrace all that is difficult and bursting with ambitious failure, unafraid to risk your ego in order to better your craft, and learn something about yourself, your style, your ideas about being a human being in a world full of other human beings. But my greatest hope is that you never settle, or cheapen your art, or suppress your youness in exchange for useless applause or popularity. Better to have your work – that which comes ripped straight from the roots of your heart – read and understood truly by three people than misunderstood but loved by fifty. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Art is only for those willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it”.

Always ask yourself why you’re writing. Are you telling the stories that matter to you? Exploring for the sake of exploring? Playing for the sake of playing? Getting lost for the sake of getting lost? Reveling in the unmappable mutations of your words and constructing language cathedrals on blank page tundras to lure the wild wolves to prayer?

Don’t worry if your book hasn’t been published yet. Don’t worry if you have no fan club. If you’re writing, you’re doing your job. You’re building a thing immutable. You’re working toward holy somethingness. You’re carving a soul out of smoke and skulls. You’re being a writer, and I promise someday these ink scars will thank you.

Life has taught me that success, contrary to popular belief, does not consist of a single meteoric leap forward overnight but is rather a series of excruciatingly tedious baby steps so slow you’re convinced at times you’re not even in motion, with an occasional embarrassing trip that knocks you several large steps backwards to leave you reeling—your ego-equilibrium atilt and confidence sore. The “successful” person then is whoever doesn’t buckle under the weight of their own skin, with enough patience to stand firm in their own two shoes. To resist the temptation to choose the easier path, or sit on the curb cursing gravity for not rewarding them with instant gratification, instead continuing to lurch stubbornly toward their dream at a snail’s pace.

Remember that the most precious of all human elements is imagination, second only to love, for in imagination, as in love, all things are possible.

To this I would add: cynicism may be fashionable but it is also cheap. Easy. Retain your sincerity. Store it up. Salvage it. Do not lose that luster of Yes that keeps you buoyant among the blood-fanged sharks of this world who would rather see you sinking, faithless for all your fellow kin and kind.

In short, strive to be that which helps all beside you float onward through the storm.

This and so many more things I wish for you, as you go out into the universe and make it your own by wrecking it and rebuilding it with words conjured from that deepest, most intimate part of you.

May you leave it kinder than you found it.

Sincerely,

Your Professor Who Knows You Will Accomplish Wonders
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Matthew Burnside is the author of a few books and chapbooks, including Postludes (KERNPUNKT) and Rules To Win the Game (Spuyten Duyvil Press). He resides in Texas and is currently finishing up a novel about a girl who raises wolves in an abandoned theme park.

Troll Pox

December 3, 2018 § 48 Comments

gritzBy Ona Gritz

When I was four years old I caught a case of chickenpox that had been making the rounds in my neighborhood. My mother’s reaction to those first telltale spots was to say, “Uh-oh…” but I felt delighted. My big sister had just gotten over the virus, and a few of my older friends—kids already in school!—had had it too. I was, of course, unfamiliar with the phrase rite of passage, but I recognized one when it spread across my skin in a connect-the-ots rash.

“I can’t come out to play,” I yelled from my window when my recently recovered upstairs neighbor happened by, pushing a doll carriage. “I’ve got chicken box now.”

One morning, fifty years later, I checked my email and discovered I’d been contacted by a troll. He had read an essay of mine about marriage and disability that I’d had the good fortune of publishing in a national newspaper—a first for me. “I think your article got way more praise than it deserved,” he wrote, “so I critiqued it here.”

Staring at the link he’d provided, I felt only the slightest temptation to click on it. I’d received lovely responses to that essay from good friends, strangers, and even a few writers I admired. Did I really need to know what this one disgruntled reader thought? I moved his message to the trash.

That was the end of it. Except it wasn’t. I wondered about this stranger who, for whatever reason, felt compelled to tear me down. It was disturbing but also oddly flattering. The next morning, I posted about it on the wall of an online writers’ support group. Even as I clicked the share button, I recognized my four-year-old self, calling proudly out the window about my chickenpox. I’d gotten trolled just like writers in the big league do. I wanted people to know.

Members of the group quickly jumped to my defense, as I knew they would.

Gross. Delete and move on!!!

How wonderful that your piece made him think?

Love your haters. They’re your biggest fans.

Later, I tried to recall the first time I’d read an online essay and noticed a rash of vitriol in the comments section. Five years before? Ten? I remembered feeling shocked and also queasy. What was it, I’d wondered, about this author’s writing that made people want to hurt her? The answer, I now knew, was quite likely nothing in particular. Anonymity together with access to a very public platform is a potent combination. Hating had become a thing.

Is this really who we are, I’ve asked myself since then, whenever I make the mistake of browsing the comments section of nearly any online essay. Are most people fuming, jealous, and condemnatory at their core? Inevitably, I had to ask an even tougher question. Am I?

The answer is no, but unfortunately it is also yes.

I’m almost unfailingly kind to people. As a writer, I have no trouble genuinely celebrating the successes of my peers. Where I falter is in the private recesses of my brain. A city dweller, I’ve spend many hours of my life on public transportation, and that’s usually where I hear it—the bitchy, judgy nattering that passes for idle thought.

Do you think we’re in your living room? I silently ask the woman fighting with the person on the other end of her cell phone.

How many times can you use the word like in one sentence? I imagine saying to the teenager chatting with friends in the seat behind mine.

Perhaps worst of all, I catch myself thinking something along the lines of, Are you really wearing those shoes with that outfit? As though I’m some kind of fashionista, which, believe me, I’m not

I don’t know why I have such a vocal inner troll, though I suspect it mostly points to my own insecurities. Whatever the cause, once I noticed the tendency, I worked to counter it by consciously making positive observations as I passed through crowds in my travels. Such soulful eyes. What an infectious laugh. And, yes, Nice shoes!

Not unsurprisingly, I got waylaid on my road to recovery during the 2016 election season. When, along with pollsters and nearly everyone I knew, I felt confident Hillary would win, I took pleasure in watching her opponent prove himself to be a bumbling, lying, hate-filled, scandal-ridden, racist, ablest, xenophobic, sexist buffoon. (Truth be told, I’ve taken genuine pleasure in lining up those adjectives just now.) “We’re so much better than this,” I scoffed, even as I relished the taste of disgust like a SweeTart on my tongue.

Certain his presence on our airwaves and in our consciousness had an expiration date, I allowed myself this relapse. But now that this bombastic hater actually holds the most venerated office in our nation, I’ve come to see kindness as a crucial act of resistance.

Meanness, after all, really is a virus. Once airborne, it quickly spreads. And if the Troll-in-Chief can be said to have any genius at all, it’s that he knows just how to spread that particular germ. We either rage along with him or rage at him. This may fuel us, but it in no way nourishes us. Compassion does that, as does community, as does sharing our stories. This, of course, is where we writers come in.

These days, there’s a vaccine for chickenpox, which is to say we can put a little of the illness into our bodies and it will protect us. Not so with hate. But what we can do—particularly those of us whose work involves sharing our experiences, ideas, and discoveries on the page—is make sure hate never has the last word.

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Ona Gritz’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Utne Reader, MORE magazine, and elsewhere. “It’s Time,” which appeared in The Rumpus, was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Her books include the memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, and the poetry collections Geode and Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems, written with my husband, Daniel Simpson.

The Golden Ticket

November 29, 2018 § 11 Comments

Sure I’d love to refer you! I’m not freaked out by your in-person request to a stranger at all!

The first time I queried a book, I made a list of 100 agents and queried 35. Most were cold pitches: I found the agent online, researched what they represented and how to query them, and sent off my query+five pages. Or query+ten pages. Or +first three chapters pasted below. Or +fifty pages as a docx attachment and a synopsis of up to 500 words using only serif font and be standing in Virabhadrasana II when you hit send.

I jumped through all the hoops I was told to jump through. Most sent form rejections, or slightly personal rejections, or didn’t respond at all. Two agents asked for the full manuscript, and both of those agents were referrals.

A referral is:

A personal recommendation
From someone who has read your work
Preferably the work you’re querying right now
And knows the agent or editor well enough that their word is trusted.

Sometimes an agent who rejects your query suggests you try another agent, but most referrals come from fellow writers with a business or personal relationship with the editor or agent.

Referrals are little golden tickets to the head of the line. You may not make it out of the chocolate factory, but referred queries get read sooner and more carefully. The agent is more likely to ask for pages even if they don’t love the query, but they do love your mutual connection.

What isn’t a referral? Posting to Facebook:

I wrote a memoir about X can anyone tell me what agents might be interested in that subject matter?

This is largely futile. No-one wants to offer up a name and then the writer emails with Violet Beauregarde referred me because giving a name isn’t a referral. Plus, agents’ wishlists change. The agent seeking travel memoirs six months ago just got five good proposals in her inbox and doesn’t need more. For current subject- and genre-specific information, use the agent’s own website, Manuscript Wishlist and #MSWL on Twitter.

Just how many metaphorical chocolate bars are you going to have to eat to get your golden ticket? Maybe none—maybe you’re already close with someone whose agent is looking for exactly what you wrote. But most writers need to start unwrapping those Wonka Bars even before they’ve finished their manuscript.

1) Start making your agent list now. What writers do they represent, and do you know any? Look up writers you know or have studied with—who are their agents?

If you know someone connected to an agent you’d like to query, buy and review that person’s books. Does the writer teach? Attend their workshops and ask intelligent questions. Join their mailing list. Tweet about their work and retweet (with a positive comment) events and books they promote. If you know them in person and they aren’t your teacher, offer to read their work. You don’t have to be at the same place in your writing careers—it’s OK for newbies to say, “If you’re ever looking for a reader, I’d love to practice giving feedback.”

2) Finish your book. Your work reflects on the person who referred you. This is time for your best final-draft work, proofread and polished. Write your query, get feedback and make revisions.

3) Make it easy to say No. Your writer-acquaintance truly may not have time, or maybe Violet already referred three people to her agent this month. Phrases like “I understand you may not have time” or “if you think this might be a fit for Agent Gloop” or “I’m querying widely but if you’re able” let them off the hook. Even if Violet’s true feeling is, This is a dreadful book no way am I referring it, she might like the next one, so give her a gracious escape. But do ask outright: it takes more time to read between the lines than respond to a clear request.

4) Make it easy to say Yes. Paste your query and first 5 pages (or whatever the desired agent’s guidelines specify) below your email signature. If Violet’s feeling it, she can hit forward and it’s done. This also lets her skim your work to remember you’re a fantastic writer and she’ll look good by recommending you. If Violet would rather introduce you in a new email, she knows you’re ready to go while the referral is fresh in the agent’s mind.

5) Thank you note. Referring connects the other writer’s reputation to you, and it takes time from their writing day. Send an email or write a quick note. No gifts that cost, because that feels like pay-to-play. Write the email in a way that requires no additional response: your goal throughout this process is to take as little of the referring writer’s time and attention as possible.

Referrals are a golden gift. But they aren’t the only way to get attention. Steps 1 and 2 are basic literary citizenship, and we can all do them whether we’re querying soon or not. Sure, some of this feels like literary nepotism, and it’s a lot of work. But it’s part of being a writer, so get started—those WonkaBars aren’t going to eat themselves.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and currently in the query trenches again.

The Art Versus the Artist: On Authenticity in Creative Writing

November 28, 2018 § 10 Comments

zoeBy Zoë Bossiere

Amid the Twitter controversies in the writing world this past summer about grifters like Anna March and serial harassers like Junot Diaz, you’ve no doubt heard the buzz about Anders Carlson-Wee and his now-infamous poem, originally published in The Nation in July of 2018. Carlson-Wee, a white man, wrote “How-To” from a black dialectic persona, instructing the reader how to survive on the streets as a homeless person. The backlash online was quick and incisive. Within three weeks, both Carlson-Wee and The Nation had publicly apologized for “the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem.”

For many, the Carlson-Wee poem was but a blip on the radar of an already scandal-packed few months. But the phenomenon is worth examining further, especially considering how, even just ten short years ago, “How-To” would not have incited nearly as fierce an outcry as it did this past July. This is in part because the use of social media as a platform for activism has grown (there are more of us, and together we’re louder than ever), but the response to this poem is also indicative of a broader trend I’ve observed in the literary world as of late.

To preface, historically, writers—and especially white writers—of fiction and poetry have appropriated other cultures, classes, and perspectives in their own writing without much thought to the ethics of this practice. And for a long time, they were highly successful in doing so. Many of these works were (and still are) hailed as masterpieces, taught in high school curricula around the world. The place of these works in western literary canon has never been called into question before.

Now, however, poetry like Carlson-Wee’s offers us an opportunity to discuss how we as readers should evaluate a piece of writing, with consideration for how the writer’s identity affects the authenticity of their work. In the literary world, as in other spheres, the conflation of the art and the artist is beginning to hold some real currency in the question of which work gets published and by whom. Agents and publishers are more interested than ever before in the identities and backgrounds of the writers they choose to represent. The gap between an artist and the art they create is beginning to close; readers are less and less willing to suspend their disbelief for a black persona poem written by a white person, or a novel with a female protagonist written through the male gaze.

The most common argument I’ve heard against this trend is that if a story or a poem is well-written, it shouldn’t matter who the author is. Writing sages like Madison Smartt Bell and Francine Prose have both critiqued this change within the last year in their essays “Policing the Imagination” and “The Problem with ‘Problematic,’” respectively, lamenting what they might call an unjust limitation of writerly creativity. They, and others, insist “good” art can (and should) be considered separately from the artist who created it. That otherwise, we risk stifling the imagination and, thus, the productivity of our favorite (mostly white) writers.

But, I wonder: at its core, is the idea that art and artist are intrinsically connected so very different from the expectation that a writer’s experiences in memoir be rendered truthfully, or that a journalist’s facts in an article be checked? Isn’t this expectation why readers (and especially Oprah) felt so betrayed when we learned James Frey had fabricated most of his wildly successful memoir, A Million Little Pieces? And also why readers demanded an explanation when The Nation chose to print “How-To” without checking Carlson-Wee’s privilege? The art was “good,” yes—but it wasn’t true.

And as readers, we crave authenticity. Learning a piece we love wasn’t written by the person we thought not only spoils the enjoyment of the art, but also forces us to ask questions about what a writer has to gain in attempting to capture an experience that isn’t their own, as well as what other, less privileged, writers may have to lose.

That’s why, as readers, we have a responsibility to understand there are experiences that a writer observing another community cannot—by virtue of being an outsider—faithfully replicate or accurately represent in their work. We must recognize that in attempting to do so, more privileged writers risk depriving marginalized writers, who are more qualified to depict their own experiences, the opportunity to publish their work.

The stakes are high, but there is some good news, too. As a community, writers are beginning to prioritize the voices of actual women, people of color, and queer-identifying folx over those simply writing as them. I’ve never seen so many literary magazines sending out calls for submission specifically seeking underrepresented voices, or such a diverse range of memoirs and essay collections currently on (or soon slated to hit) the market.

Of course, this awakening has been coming for the last several years, and not just in the literary world. Whether it be a work of comedy, film, fine art, music, or literature, modern consumers value authentic experiences in art, now more than ever before. The uptick in memoir and general nonfiction sales reflect this trend. As does the #MeToo push for work by women breaking the silence of harassment and abuse, such as former Brevity managing editor Kelly Sundberg’s memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl, and the success garnered by queer comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette Netflix special.

And while I understand this change may give some poets and fiction writers pause, all this makes now an exceptionally exciting time for nonfiction as a genre. Because a world that demands authenticity—where artists are required to draw from their own bodies of research and experience—is a world that reflects what we essayists have suspected all along: that nonfiction is not only inclusive of all art, but that all art is, on some level, a work of nonfiction.

** The above has been adapted from a paper I submitted for the NonfictioNow húslestur discussion on “Writing for Social Change” in November of 2018. The húslestur, an Icelandic “family custom of gathering at night to read aloud and discuss ideas,” is a themed roundtable-style discussion on the nonfiction issues of our time.
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Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University and the Managing Editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. Works and significant life events can be viewed at zoebossiere.com or on Twitter @zoebossiere

David Mura on Race, Identity, and MFA Diversity

November 27, 2018 § 2 Comments

This is the second part of Brevity Assistant Editor Alexis Paige’s talk with her mentor-turned-friend, David Mura, author and VONA faculty and board member, about his new book, A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing.  Part one can be read here.

A Paige headshotPAIGE: “The work will teach you how to do the work,” you reminded me on the phone recently, “Do whatever it takes to keep the writing going; you’ll write your way into the answers that you need.” How or when in the process of writing this book did you know that race, identity, and narrative craft were all part of one book? Did you set out to write about them all, or did they come together by way of alchemy in the writing itself?

MURA: In much earlier incarnations, the book was rejected by two publishers. At the time, I was of course disappointed and discouraged by this; I experienced that sense of failure and even despair that I describe in the book as part of certain narrative constructions—the crisis of the second act of a three-act play; this is the dark night of the soul that comes in the middle of the mythical hero’s journey. Still, I continued working on the book because it came out of questions and problems that I encountered with students in my teaching at the VONA writers’ conference and in the Stonecoast MFA program.

At Stonecoast, I was writing long letters to individual students about their work, and I found that, unlike in many workshops, it wasn’t enough for me simply to point out the problems or deficiencies in their work. I had to help them come up with possible solutions or new ways of considering and addressing those problems and deficiencies. In this way I never stopped working on the book; I made it part of my job as a teacher.

I also kept in mind a couple of bromides about writing. As I’ve said to you, “You can always revise something; you can’t revise nothing.” Just write something; it doesn’t have to be perfect; writing is a process. I was also fueled by my friend Garrett Hongo’s observation after reading through drafts of Turning Japanese, my first memoir: “David, you’re not a writer, you’re a rewriter.” To put it more bluntly, he was saying, David, your first drafts are shit, but you just keep working at the writing and revising and eventually you get it.

DavidMuraThe connections in the book among race, identity, narrative craft, and the process of becoming a writer stems from both my teaching and my own writing. For instance, in the essay on the four questions regarding the narrator, the opening question is: Who is the narrator? This question applies to memoir in an obvious way, but it applies even to the third person omniscient narrator in fiction. So the very first question regarding narration involves these issues of identity. And so does the second, whom is the narrator telling the story to?

Let me take just one aspect of this second question. As Toni Morrison has observed, until very recently, white American writers never imagined a black reader; that is, white writers didn’t feel they had to consider how a black readership might interpret and evaluate their writing. Writers of color know that the literary gatekeepers will often be white. As I say in the book, that doesn’t mean a POC writer needs to write for a white audience, but we are certainly aware that our work will be judged by a white audience. Indeed, that involves, as DuBois noted, a more complex dual and multiple consciousness. But today, as opposed to the past, white writers must understand that those who read and judge their work will increasingly not be white; often, those readers and writers of color and indigenous writers may look at your writing differently than you do—so why would you want to remain ignorant of different aesthetics and ways of approaching writing? In her introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2018, Roxane Gay delineates her aesthetic disagreements with the choices of Richard Russo in an earlier edition. This is not to say that Gay is right and Russo wrong, but it is to say that you can’t even evaluate their differences if you aren’t aware of how Gay is formulating her aesthetic criteria.

Of course, with students of color, it’s often obvious to them that their racial and/or ethnic identity is a multi-faceted question, but this is also true for white writers. American culture itself emphasizes the individual over the group, but it’s clear that we are simultaneously individuals and members of a group. Moreover, in part because of this cultural tendency—and in part because of the ways race is processed, or rather, denied in this country—my students, but particularly my white students, often had a hard time thinking of themselves as a member of a group or how the lens of the group comes in many different contexts—race, ethnicity, class, gender, orientation, generation, region, etc.

PAIGE: I remember well my own resistance. Thinking about these issues is work—some of the hardest and best kind—but still work, and ongoing, endlessly complex. As a white writer, I have more work ahead of me than I can ever fully appreciate, for as you say, we don’t know what we don’t know. Such realizations can be daunting. In our semesters together, for example, I would often hope that some evolving draft was, if not done, then at least getting close—only to find one of your legendary letters in my inbox about more that needed to be done, or that could be done, or about different frameworks to consider, different ways of thinking that might open up the work, ways to formulate my own aesthetic criteria. With the single-mindedness of all students, I began to worry about ever finishing anything: “What if I can’t finish it?” I asked you about my thesis/ book. “The book will teach you how to finish it,” you said. I loved this idea, still love this idea—that the work is itself instructive—that the work is animate even; it decides, not the writer. What a relief! Now, on my best writing days, I am able to get out of the way and listen to the work. What did this book teach you as you wrote it?

MURA: First off, I learned that history and reality can change rapidly and thus, the context around your own work. Here’s how the book opens:

“The earliest essays in this book were written just before Barack Hussein Obama was elected President, bringing some deluded to declare a post-racial America. I write this introduction just after the 2016 election, in a nation where Michael Brown and Ferguson, Freddie Gray, Baltimore and Black Lives Matter are now juxtaposed against the rampant racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry, and sexism of Donald Trump’s election.”

I started the book in a time when many white writers did not want to think about the issues of race or thought them as mainly part of the past. In Trump’s America, race—and thus the question of white identity—cannot be avoided. So I started the book in a climate where I felt my project was a steep, uphill climb, and now I feel the book has come out at a time when the issues related to race are more and more considered a necessary part of our literary conversation. In short, I’ve gone from being ahead of the curve to just keeping up with it. That’s why I’m rushing to finish my next book of essays on race.

While the book was being considered, the readers for the University of Georgia Press asked for more material about race and identity, which I was glad to do (I had worried that they were going to say there was too much). I was also spurred on by conversations with students and writers of color about their experiences in creative writing classrooms. In the process, I’ve had to work towards a deeper understanding of how race structures our perceptions of our social reality, and thus, how literature is created and interpreted. If unconscious or implicit bias is at work in other areas of society, why wouldn’t it also infect our considerations of literary craft and excellence? And what are the sources of that bias? Over the last twenty-five years, the scholarship and theory concerning race has exploded, and I’ve tried to keep up with that—Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman, Khalil Gibran Mohammad, Michelle Alexander, Critical Race Theory.

I’ve also had to become less concerned about negative reactions to what I’m saying about race and literature. This has been bolstered by work to find the intellectual and literary arguments to support my views, to find the basis for certain feelings I just have as a person of color seeing what this society does to people of color. In this way, I had to own my own perceptions and trust in them. As I say a couple times in my book, we start to write a book in order to become the person who finishes the book. I sometimes tell people, “I’m a Japanese American kid who grew up white identified in a Jewish suburb of Chicago. When a white friend would say to me, ‘David, I think of you as a white person,’ that was the way I wanted to be regarded.”

At a certain point, I began reading black authors like Fanon and discovered I was not white and that I had to figure out what that meant. But that suburban Asian American kid still resides in me and he’s astonished at what I’m now writing, what my life—so much more diverse than when I was growing up—has become.
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David Mura’s newest book is A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity & Narrative Craft in Writing. He has written two acclaimed memoirs: Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei (Oakland PEN Josephine Miles Book Award & New York Times Notable Book), and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity. He has also written a novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, and four books of poetry, the latest The Last Incantations. Mura has taught at VONA, the Loft, the Stonecoast MFA program, the University of Oregon, the University of Minnesota, and other institutions. He also works with the Innocent Classroom, a program that trains K-12 teachers to improve their relationships with students of color.

Alexis Paige is the author of NOT A PLACE ON ANY MAP, a collection of flash lyric essays about trauma, and winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Her essays, “Common Purple Lilac,” from Full Grown People, and “The Right to Remain,” from The Rumpus, are Notables in The Best American Essays, of 2018 and 2016, respectively. Paige’s work appears in many journals and anthologies, including Hippocampus, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, and on Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and twice a top-ten finalist in Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in Poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. She lectures and teaches widely, and writes and edits from a converted farmhouse pantry in Vermont, where she lives with her husband and three dogs. She can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com.

David Mura on Race, Identity, and the Creative Writing Community

November 26, 2018 § 2 Comments

DavidMuraBrevity Assistant Editor Alexis Paige talks with her mentor-turned-friend, David Mura, author and VONA faculty and board member, about his new book, A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing. Mura and Paige first met in 2012 at the low-residency Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program. After taking the workshop, “Writing on Race,” co-taught by Mura and author Alexs Pate,  Paige worked with Mura for two semesters, including one in which Mura served as Paige’s final thesis advisor. They remain in touch on many of these issues and others. Here is part one of their two-part discussion:

PAIGE: Your new book is called A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing; immediately striking is the complex synthesis you undertake, even in the title, of subjects that are often compartmentalized or marginalized in American letters. The book engages so many issues and with such depth and complexity that I do think varied readers would benefit from it, and I could see it being used in varied contexts, both including and beyond the creative writing classroom. Who did you write this book for, and why?

MURA: As I state in the introduction, the book is for both writers of color and for white writers. I want it to provoke discussions in creative writing classrooms, and ultimately, I want the issues of race and identity to be considered essential to the writer’s craft. Too often when students of color bring up racial issues in class, they are summarily dismissed as being political or outside any question of aesthetics. Through close readings and discussions of aesthetic and pedagogical principles, I demonstrate the speciousness and narrow-mindedness of such dismissals and how a disregard or ignorance of the aesthetics and traditions of writers of color runs contrary to any principles of creativity.

To start with, any arguments concerning race in literature are both aesthetic and political. As Richard Wright observed, black and white Americans are engaged in a conflict over the description of reality. Why wouldn’t that struggle also be taking place within literature, which is obviously one way of describing our social reality? Moreover, as T.S. Eliot observed, the canon is constantly changing; when new works are added, they alter our understanding and evaluation of past literature. Add James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, add post-colonial writers like Achebe, Jamaica Kincaid or Rushdie, and we look at past works slightly differently. For instance, you discover, as Morrison does in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, limitations and blind spots in canonical writers like Cather, Hemingway, and Faulkner. (Edward Said makes a similar critique in Culture & Imperialism.) We then begin to see how the inability of these white writers to move beyond a white understanding of race led them to failures of craft and aesthetic limitations.

At the same time, I want to emphasize that this is also a book on creative writing in general; the book’s focus on narrative structures and techniques is especially geared to fiction writers, memoirists, and to certain types of nonfiction. I’ve had students from prestigious MFA programs who simply didn’t know how to tell a story. Recently, a student at the VONA writers’ conference said that discussions concerning narrative structure or technique were shunted aside at her MFA program. To me this is pedagogical malpractice and simply ignorant. Shakespeare, Austen, Melville, Marquez, Flannery O’Connor, Morrison (yes, in complicated ways) all use these structures and techniques. So did the ancient storytellers.

A Paige headshotPAIGE: As you mention, the book focuses intently on narrative structure and suggests, perhaps, that cultural understanding of basic principles of storytelling is in decline. Why do you think that is? And, since Brevity is a nonfiction journal and our readers are likely most interested in creative nonfiction forms, do you think fundamental principles of story—such as positing narrator goals and throwing up obstacles—are more especially overlooked by essayists and memoirists, seen more as tools for the fiction writer? Why must CNF writers master narrative structure too?

MURA: There are so many examples of narrative structure in great nonfiction and memoirs, like John Hersey’s Hiroshima or Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life; even when the work as a whole is not a linear narrative, certain narrative techniques are used to create narrative drive, as I demonstrate in an essay on Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. Then too there are novels that read like memoirs and seem to traverse some gray area between fiction and nonfiction, like Duras’ The Lover or Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. Narrative structures can be used to create aesthetic pleasure and reader interest, and I think the more overtly novel-like structure of my memoir, Turning Japanese, explains in part why it is my most popular book.

Narrative structure is a way of understanding experience, not just organizing it. As I say to my students, I can tell the story of any failed relationship in three acts—which also follows some of the outlines of the mythic hero’s journey. There’s the fallow kingdom before anything happens; there’s the call or calls to the relationship and perhaps the traditional hero’s reluctance to enter the relationship. There’s the start of the relationship that begins the second act, which may go smoothly or wonderfully at first, then runs into the crisis of the second act, the period where things began to break down and arguments start, where irreconcilable conflicts emerge (when my partner is happy he’s great vs. when he’s depressed he’s terrible; I like my job vs. my partner wants to move to another state, etc.). Finally, there’s the point where it’s clearly the last chance for the relationship. Narrative structure isn’t simply one thing happens after the next; it’s understanding the crucial events, decisions, actions or turning points; honing in on when the protagonist faces irreconcilable conflicts, when the protagonist lies or evades the truth.

In fiction, we create story. In nonfiction, we discover story. A documentarian shoots hundreds of hours of film. That is not a story. The footage must be cut and shaped, must be analyzed to highlight points of tension or decision. A good documentarian also knows how to keep the viewer involved in the narrative and wanting to see what happens next and what happens in the end.

Of course, it’s not that all nonfiction—or fiction for that matter–must have a narrative structure. But for students learning their craft, it’s important to understand how to use the tools of narrative structure and technique and what they can do for the writer.

PAIGE: In creative writing milieus—whether MFA programs, conferences, or communities—issues of race, power, and identity are too often relegated to “special topics,” if they are addressed at all, or else they get framed as content issues, rather than as craft issues. Your book resists this assumption and argues that considering one’s position of identity and power is a matter of both content and craft. When you mentor beginning writers, how do you start to deconstruct and reframe some of the assumptions that delineate the ways writers see themselves and craft itself?

MURA: In the appendix of the book, I have seven assignments I use in my teaching. One of the assignments is to keep a notebook about all the aspects of the writer’s identity that they might consider—race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, class, generation, region, etc. The assignment is based on Michelle Cliff’s The Land of Look Behind, which consists of pieces that contain little fragments—notes, poems, and quotations on her identity—a potpourri. Cliff was a light-skinned black Jamaican who had been taught by her family to pass as white, and after leaving Jamaica, she entered an academic career and was working on her dissertation on “game-playing in the Italian Renaissance.” When Cliff decided to begin investigating her own identity, she discovered that she wasn’t very articulate; she couldn’t find or create much flow to her language. Yes, she could easily write intellectual academic prose—she even dreamed in Medieval Latin–but writing about herself? That was hard, nearly impossible. Cliff was also working a nine-to-five job. So, because she found it difficult to write about her identity, she just allowed herself to write fragments, notes. She didn’t put pressure on herself to be eloquent or create long coherent essays or narratives.

There’s a lesson in what Cliff went through in writing about her identity. When a writer is just beginning to write on a difficult subject such as race or a personal trauma or a difficult relationship, they shouldn’t expect instant lucidity or eloquence or even coherence. As I keep telling my students, writing is a process. You don’t get ten feet deep all at once. If you’re digging into a new area, you’ve got to start with the first inch and as a result, the writing may be unformed or rather superficial. But if you keep digging, if you keep writing on the subject, this prods the unconscious, and the unconscious begins to work on the subject or issue, especially if you’re doing this writing regularly. In this process, new insights and articulations begin to pop up or perhaps buried or hazy memories, more details. In this way, the writer should approach the subject of identity—or any other difficult subject—the way one might in therapy, just saying what first comes to mind and seeing where that leads.

In the penultimate essay of A Stranger’s Journey, on V.S. Naipaul, I analyze how his autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival explores a Naipaul fictional doppelganger, who starts out wanting to write like Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh. That a Trinidadian of Indian descent thought his work would center on subjects like upper class white Brits at English country houses may seem to us absurd now, but it’s an example of how Naipaul’s British colonial education led him to denigrate his own background and indeed, to flee from it as a young writer (btw: Fanon analyzes this process in Black Skin, White Masks). But as Naipaul makes clear, it was only by researching Caribbean history and beginning to write about this history that he discovered a path into his true subject; his great novel, based on his father’s life, A House for Mr. Biwas, comes out of an embrace of his identity and familial past rather than a rejection of it. But in many writing programs and classes, writers of color and indigenous writers are discouraged from such explorations or made to feel such explorations are minor, secondary, inferior.

In today’s America, our increasingly diverse population is obviously causing a white backlash, and the idea that we’re post-racial is patently absurd. White writers, like other white people, will increasingly find that their identity too has become a question—e.g., if you don’t align your identity with white Trump supporters, how do you articulate and contextualize your racial identity? Certainly, if you’re unprepared to investigate the issues of race, ethnicity and identity in regards to your own identity, you’re ill-equipped to write about a multi-racial, multi-ethnic America where, sometime after 2040, no race will constitute a majority, and we will all be racial minorities.

In the course that I co-taught at the Stonecoast MFA, “Writing on Race,” we used an excerpt from Thandeka’s Learning to be White: Race, Money & God in America where she talks to white people about the first time they realized their racial identity. We did this as an assignment for the course, and often the white students were surprised by what they discovered when they looked back to an event in their childhood, such as inviting a black friend over to their house and then being told not to do that anymore by a parent or other adult. Whiteness is based on a set of rules, practices, and beliefs; for many white writers, to examine the origins of how they learned those rules, practices, and beliefs provides them with a new lens to interpret and contextualize not just their own life, but their family and the society around them.

 PAIGE: In the chapter, “The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program,” you write, “In American society, the divide between the way whites and people of color see the social reality around them is always present,” and then you describe various ways that these issues emerge in the MFA workshop—often unconsciously from white writers who assert a dominant or default sense of taste or subjectivity they aren’t even aware of as such. And yet, it happens, and in fact, it happens so predictably that students of color can expect to experience certain classic encounters; this chapter reads, in part, as a survival manual written for these students of color. What do MFA programs need to do or to do better to begin to right these imbalances and to take responsibility for all students’ experiences in the MFA? What do teachers in MFA programs need to do to address these problems so that students of color can enjoy and thrive, rather than survive, their MFA studies?

MURA: In another essay in the book, “Writing Teachers—or David Foster Wallace vs. James Baldwin,” I argue that MFA programs need to address the willed ignorance of certain white professors—their lack of knowledge of the work and craft of writers of color. Obviously, these professors can’t open up their booklists or teaching to a wider and more diverse set of works and aesthetic principles if they aren’t aware of this diversity. Then too, there’s an intellectual tradition and a historical background that’s needed to properly interpret and contextualize the works of writers of color—Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, bell hooks’ essays, Edward Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey, etc.; Marxist criticism, feminist criticism, GBLT criticism, scholars like Claude Steel on stereotype consciousness and stereotype threat…this list could go on and on.

This preparation involves simply reading more widely. But the white writer or professor who has not read in these traditions must also ask themselves why they have not done so; what are the prejudices and white-identified concepts which have led to their ignorance? And beyond that, they must engage in a psychological and spiritual reorientation of their own identity.

For one thing, white ignorance of the works of people of color often inherently assumes—consciously or unconsciously—that these works are inferior. Of course, this assumption is racist, but that is precisely why these tasks are so difficult. White writer professors are liberals; they want to think of themselves as enlightened and innocent. To confront their own prejudices and ignorance, they must abandon and deconstruct that sense of innocence. And this is no simple task.

As Baldwin observed, “The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic—a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall.” And yet, not to engage such a question, Baldwin argues in “Stranger in the Village,” creates its own problems: “People who shut their eyes to reality invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” Now let me be clear: I’m not saying that these white writing teachers are monsters; what I am saying is that Baldwin’s statement here surely applies to this country and our culture as a whole when it comes to issues of race.

The task of opening up MFA programs and making them more conducive to the work and presence of writers of color is not an easy one. Why would it be? We’ve been dealing with racism in this country from the time of its inception and we are still a divided people racially. Again, why would we expect the world of letters to be any different?

Read Part Two of this discussion.

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David Mura’s newest book is A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity & Narrative Craft in Writing. He has written two acclaimed memoirs: Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei (Oakland PEN Josephine Miles Book Award & New York Times Notable Book), and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity. He has also written a novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, and four books of poetry, the latest The Last Incantations. Mura has taught at VONA, the Loft, the Stonecoast MFA program, the University of Oregon, the University of Minnesota, and other institutions. He also works with the Innocent Classroom, a program that trains K-12 teachers to improve their relationships with students of color.

Alexis Paige is the author of NOT A PLACE ON ANY MAP, a collection of flash lyric essays about trauma, and winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Her essays, “Common Purple Lilac,” from Full Grown People, and “The Right to Remain,” from The Rumpus, are Notables in The Best American Essays, of 2018 and 2016, respectively. Paige’s work appears in many journals and anthologies, including Hippocampus, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, and on Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and twice a top-ten finalist in Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in Poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. She lectures and teaches widely, and writes and edits from a converted farmhouse pantry in Vermont, where she lives with her husband and three dogs. She can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com.

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