Finding the “I” Character in Memoir

February 18, 2021 § 2 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

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

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

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

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

Readers aren’t that different.

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

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

The webinar is useful for writes at all levels,  

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

Registration and more information here.

Brevity Launches Issue 66: Fresh Flash Nonfiction and Craft Essays

January 18, 2021 § 2 Comments

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

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

Read our latest issue here.

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

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

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

Barry Lopez: On Art and Living Well

December 28, 2020 § 8 Comments

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

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

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

Take the Giveaway4Good Challenge

December 14, 2020 § 5 Comments

By Lisa Ellison

During my parents’ divorce, I lived with my grandmother, a gifted raconteur with impeccable timing and skillful intonation. Listening to her made me want to become a storyteller. Most of her tales were set during her childhood in the Bronx and involved the Yankees, her mother’s mysterious illness, or her family’s elaborate Italian dinners.

One day, she told me about a dollhouse she’d wanted for her sixth Christmas. At sixty-one, she could still recall the number of rooms and the color of the kitchen’s porcelain plates. With each detail, she transformed into the little girl who pleaded for her one and only Christmas wish.

But the only gifts under that year’s Christmas tree were underwear and socks.

After a long pause, she swallowed hard then patted my hand. “That day, I learned an important lesson. If you never want anything, you’ll never be disappointed.”

A lifetime of heartache solidified that lesson.

Her mother’s tragic death.
A shotgun wedding after an unplanned pregnancy.
An unhappy marriage.
A suicide attempt.
Mysterious health problems.
Agoraphobia.

At ten, I absorbed her lesson.

It took several decades to unlearn it.

Since March, I’ve thought a lot about her story and how it’s hard to want anything when problems keep dropping upon us.

A global pandemic.
Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
Economic turmoil.
Increasing inequity.
Tragic deaths.
Health crises.
Election drama.
More COVID cases.

And yet, even now, I have desires.

I want to finish the memoir about my brother’s suicide.

I want to send it to agents.

I want to believe this story will help someone.

When grief overpowers me during the revision process or I fear my memoir no longer matters, I turn to Brevity for inspiration.

While my teacup steams beside me, I read courageous posts about Chelsey Drysdale’s courage in the face of rejection, Amy Grier’s determination to finish her memoir, and Shiv Dutta’s late-life publishing success.

Brevity shows me that I’m part of a creative family whose wishes are sacred.

In November, I met with several members of this creative family who sounded as broken-hearted as my grandmother. Many talked of shrinking their dreams. I felt like doing this too.

During my master’s in counseling, my advisor once said, “We can’t change the past, but we can change the story we tell about it.” That’s what counselors help people do.

It’s also the gift of creative nonfiction.

As we entered the final month of this year, I wanted to do something that proved there’s more than one story we can tell about 2020.

I created my #Giveaway4Good Challenge to help writers connect with something greater than themselves. Each week’s challenge is designed to boost resilience and encourage literary citizenship. Knowing this work benefits my creative family gives me the strength to work on the hardest parts of my memoir.  

My Week Three Challenge gives you an opportunity to support organizations like Brevity that encourage us to courageously turn our difficult experiences into art.

Here are the details for this week’s challenge:

  1. Support any literary organization with a monetary donation or social media share, and I’ll give you one ticket for this week’s drawing. I’m giving additional tickets for support to Hippocampus Literary Magazine, James River Writers, and Creative Nonfiction. For more details check out my website.
  2. Support Brevity by doing one of the following and I’ll give you two tickets for this week’s drawing:
    1. Subscribe to Brevity’s blog (If you’re reading online, the subscribe button is in the sidebar on the right)
    2. Read and share any Brevity blog post on social media
    3. Follow Brevity on Instagram @Brevitymag
  3. Make a ten-dollar donation to Brevity or send a copy of The Best of Brevity to a writer, teacher, or friend and I’ll give you four tickets for this week’s drawing.

The more you do, the more tickets you’ll earn. 

This week’s prize is a set of author-signed books published in 2020 and a spot in Jane Friedman’s Query Master Class

You’ll also be entered in my grand-prize drawing for a one-hour coaching session with me (includes a 10-page manuscript review) PLUS a spot in Jane Friedman’s course How to Write a Book Proposal.

To participate in this challenge, send an email to lisa.cooper.ellison@gmail.com. Please include the name of the organization and your donation amount or a screenshot of your social media posts.

If loneliness, heartache or overwhelm make you question your dreams, brew a hot beverage, and scroll through Brevity. Let the words of your brilliant, courageous writing family remind you to that your stories are your gift to the world.

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Lisa Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary MagazineKenyon Review Online, and The Guardian, among others. She is currently working on a memoir about how, after her brother’s suicide, a chance meeting during a heavy metal tour ultimately saved her life. Follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen or Instagram @lisacooperellison. 

The Best of Brevity Visits Ann Arbor and New York City

November 27, 2020 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Writers Can Make the Most of a Pandemic Winter

November 18, 2020 § 17 Comments

By Sweta Srivastava Vikram

It’s been raining nonstop in NYC as I write this essay. I am a sunshine-loving woman and the relentless downpour (We have had a wet week) dries up my creative juices. It makes me unnecessarily mellow and puts out my creative fire. I like being able to go for a walk in the woods or stroll in the park close to home to tap into my inner voice and connect with the stories that matter. 

Denial: Being homebound these past few days, I said to my husband, “You sure we weren’t transported to London one night while we were asleep?” Nothing seems strange or impossible in 2020. Because I remember autumn as a crisp and bright season in NYC, not grey and wet like the weather across the pond that our London friends and family complain about. Imagine what winter will be like?

Acceptance: Once I let the rant out of my system, I ordered a few brightening and heating lamps for our apartment. Because either you change your situation (which I can’t at this time) or your attitude around it. 2020 has taught us all that so much of our survival and sanity is dependent on our mindset. We are stuck in the pandemic for a long haul…sometimes, with awful weather. We can either accept it with grace or fight a battle with no outcome in sight.

Innovation: I can’t write on the couch. I can’t work on the floor. So, I carved out an intimate corner for my creative work, which is well-lit and has a space heater for my feet to stay warm. It also has close access to the kitchen—literally five seconds—for the numerous cups of chai I need. I, for one, have not returned to working from coffee shops or a co-working space. I don’t see writing residencies or writing retreats in my near future. I live in a NYC apartment, so the space is not something you will read about in an architectural magazine. But I love that it’s all mine for my writing. In this nook, I don’t work my day job. None of my virtual speaking engagements or client coaching happen in my writing space. No one else is allowed to sit in my writing chair. I show up here every day with gratitude in my heart.  

Meaningfulness: I view this pandemic as an opportunity to connect with our individual selves and society-at-large. It’s an unintended but profound mindfulness practice. When the days get shorter and colder and our ability to go out and see people (even if from a distance) becomes reduced, writers can rely on the company of their words. While 2020 has been brutal and unpreceded, it’s given us writers a lot of material to work with. If you feel too close to it, the timing seems uncomfortable, and it makes you anxious, don’t start to write. The brain is still collecting information. It’s percolating, fermenting, and processing. These are all vital limbs of the writing process. 

Association: I also remind myself that writing is like yoga asanas and meditation—you show up daily with dedication without any attachment to the outcome. Some days will be prolific; other days, will be null. But show up because having a habit and purpose can help us feel connected. Be fine with all days not being the same. Be okay with not hammering yourself to produce a daily quota of words. Befriend writing on a deeper level. Sit with the discomfort but don’t pressure yourself to churn out pages after pages. Being a writer doesn’t just mean tapping away at the keyboard or scribbling in your journal all day. All these experiences will stay with you. When the time is right, you will write. This approach ultimately reassures me that I will always be a writer (whether I am writing a book or being creative with a social media post), so it eliminates any fear associated with my identity as a writer and encourages me to show up to writing daily.

I interviewed three women writers who live in different countries—Canada, United Kingdom, and the United States—to get their input on how we, the writers, can make the most of a pandemic winter….no matter which place we call home.

London-based Sejal Sehmi, IT consultant and UK editor of Brown Girl Magazine, said, “Being in the midst of the pandemic especially in the winter is sure to arouse a lot of anxiety and uncertainty – much as what I myself have suffered during the peak of the lockdown. But it’s also a time that these fears can also give way to suppressed emotions which sometimes can only be articulated in words. Make it a point, at some time in the day, to keep a regular routine of writing something, anything, even if it’s just a Dear Diary moment. Early mornings, whilst I appreciate it is more challenging because of the shorter days to come, I feel is the best time to jot anything that comes to mind down on paper/journal. Once this becomes a routine, your creative juices in its own time will naturally build something you will enjoy reading back on.”

Sehmi further suggested something I can’t live without either: “Meditation can play an integral part to having a clear focused head and be mindful of looking for creativity even within the four walls we are surrounded by. We often spend so long seeking inspiration from the outside world and forget how close to home it actually is. This is the time, more than ever to use our words to self-heal and self-comfort.”

Another poignant suggestion comes from Seattle-based Joyce Yarrow, author of Zahara and the Lost Books of Light (Adelaide Books, NY/Lisbon). “When I think about being a house-bound writer during this pandemic, what comes to mind are the many books written by authors while serving time in prison. Although the majority of these ‘prisoner-authors’ have little in common with me—I am not a convicted thug, thief, kidnapper and rapist like Sir Thomas Malory, who wrote Le Morte d’Arthur—there are some I greatly admire, such as Nelson Mandela (Conversations with Myself) and Piper Kerman (Orange is the New Black). The bottom line is that I’ve always admired people who are able to transcend their surroundings and create a safe place in which to be creative. Whether we confine ourselves willingly or are sequestered by circumstance, developing the ability to visualize and create worlds that we literally wish into being is a gift to be treasured. And by nurturing our gratitude for this gift, we can not only survive—we can thrive.”

Anita Kushwaha, author of Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters, Harper Avenue, said, “When we went into lockdown here in Ottawa back in March, like so many of us, my creativity took a nosedive. I couldn’t focus for long enough to write or even read. After a while, though, writing became my haven from the uncertainty of the world. At first, things moved slowly. But in time, the pace picked up and I even managed to complete a new manuscript over the span of the next five months. (Fast for me.) Now that we’re in the second wave of the pandemic, writing has once again become a kind of sanctuary for me, a place where I can go and have at least some control over what happens. My one suggestion? Observe and embrace the changes in your creative process, find new ways that work for you, and cut yourself some slack if you aren’t meeting your own expectations in terms of output. We’re all living through something incredibly challenging at the moment. Good luck and keep going!”

While we are ALL in the pandemic together, we are still individuals with our own strengths and struggles and hesitations. Figure out what works for you and your creative process this winter. 

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ~ Octavia E. Butler

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Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 12 books, and Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is a trained yogi and certified Ayurveda health coach, is on the board of Fly Female Founders, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe. She also teaches yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as well incarcerated men and women. Find her on: TwitterInstagramLinkedIn, and Facebook.

The Best of Brevity Now Available & Two Readings This Week

November 16, 2020 § Leave a comment

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

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

Here are the particulars:

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

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

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

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

And here’s more on the book:

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

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

                         -Karen Babine, author of All the Wild Hungers    
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Election Day Reads for a Better America (please add to the list…)

November 3, 2020 § 1 Comment

Justin Hackworth Photography

By Joey Franklin

If the past several years of political rancor have demonstrated anything, it is that Americans are not often at our best when talking politics (I know I’m not).  There seems to be so little room for compassion, nuance, or even a basic acknowledgment of a common humanity outside our own tribal boundaries.

Tania Israel, author of Beyond your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, writes: “If we cannot survive outside of our bubbles, if we cannot tolerate listening to our friends and families and neighbors, if we cannot see beyond our own perspectives; if we view our fellow citizens as enemies, how can we sustain our relationships, our communities, our country?”

And if you are anything like me, you read those questions, and you imagined friends and family that you sometimes can’t tolerate listening to; and you probably imagined people you know who have trouble seeing beyond their own perspectives (and you probably didn’t count yourself among them). But these are essential questions to ask ourselves at the peak of one of the most contentious and significant presidential races in modern history. No matter which candidate prevails, the health of our nation will depend a great deal on our ability to speak across socio-political boundaries, to recognize our own blind spots, to accept one another as fellow human beings, and speak clearly and powerfully about what it is to live in this strained and divided country.

Given this imperative, I offer here five essays that demonstrate the kind of poignant, challenging, socially conscious invitation to empathy that is so essential to the health of a diverse citizenry. Change comes as we learn to see one another more clearly, when we reclaim patriotism in the spirit of the essay—not a flag-waving zeal based on myth and convenient narratives, but a skeptical hope in the power of individual experience to lift us toward our loftier ideals. 

Election Day Reads for a Better America:

“It’s bad to lie your way through life. But this is easier, better. What’s worse is how it keeps happening. We build it—our lives, a city, a home—we break it down. Over and over.”

Azzam’s stunning lyric essay captures the way racism, fear, and a desire for belonging can complicate allegiances and life for immigrant families in the United States. 

“I just don’t think Americans fully realize how terrorizing it is to black males when we are falsely suspected as violent criminals. All Americans seem to be thinking about is their fear of us—not our fear of their fear.”

Kendi examines the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the irrational white fear that led to his death and that continues to threaten people of color across the country.

“If we ever forget that there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who have allowed memory to be murdered too, and what good are we then?” 

Before Brian Doyle died, he came to BYU and read this essay about the heroes of the Sandy Hook school shooting. He passed out copies and told the audience: “Walk out of here with ‘Dawn and Mary’ in your pocket. Then read it as you like, and then copy it a hundred times and give it to everybody you know.”

“No matter what we write, white people can turn our stories into weapons, an excuse to be paternalistic . . .No matter what we do, we’re still Indian, and often we don’t get to speak for ourselves.”

Mailhot reflects on the long history of white culture appropriating, denying, exoticizing, erasing, and demonizing native cultures, and expresses a desire to speak on her own terms.

“After September 11, I saw for the first time that the flag—along with all its red, white, and blue collateral relations—is what a semiotician would call ‘polysemous’: it has multiple meanings.”

Fadiman considers the roots of her bias against flag waving, and reconsiders the possibilities of patriotism and the nature of her own belonging in a post 9/11 America.

On this election day, as the frenetic energy of the campaigns come to an end, and we sit in what we hope is the calm after, and not before the storm, it is good to read something that challenges us to be better Americans. These essays here are just a primer, and I hope in the comments below you’ll share titles, and maybe links to essays that inspire you on this election day. Heaven knows we all could use a little of that.

*And a quick note of thanks:  To Dinty for inviting me to inhabit the Brevity Blog over these past few days, and to the Brevity community at large for taking the time to read, think, comment, and share. It has been a pleasure. Happy reading. Now go vote!).
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Joey Franklin’s new book Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays is on sale now at University of Nebraska Press. Use discount code 6AF20 to get 40% off.
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Joey Franklin’s newest book is Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays. He is also the author of My Wife Wants You to Know I Am Happily Married (Nebraska 2015). His articles and essays have appeared in Poets & Writers MagazineWriter’s ChronicleHunger MountainGettysburg Review, the Norton Reader, and elsewhere. With Patrick Madden, he co-edits the literary magazine Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (accepting submissions now), and he teaches at Brigham Young University where he coordinates the MFA program in creative writing. His current projects include a memoir about the saints and scoundrels in his family tree, and a professionalization guide for creative writers. He can be found online at joeyfranklin.com.

Lofty Promises: An Election Eve Tribute to the American Essay

November 2, 2020 § 10 Comments

By Joey Franklin

In the twenty-plus years that I have been eligible to vote, I’ve moved more than twelve times, which means I’ve rarely cast a ballot in the same place more than twice. Elementary school cafeterias in Oregon, the city offices in Athens, Ohio, and a Catholic church in Lubbock, Texas. I’ve caucused inside an 80-year-old middle school, cast an absentee ballot from Japan, and voted by mail during a pandemic (don’t tell the president).

A part of me loves election season—the way a community opens itself up every year to make room for this grand civic experiment, the communal queuing up to cast our votes, the elderly matrons of democracy who run the polling stations, and the polling stations themselves as little bastions of non-partisan volunteerism. It can feel utterly patriotic, and every year the part of me that grew up a Boy Scout reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and lionizing the founding fathers fills with hope in the lofty promises of America.

But every year, there is another part of me that feels nauseated by the entire process—the incessant partisan spin on cable news, the angry churn of social media, the pandering to party extremes, and all that wasted money ($14 Billion this cycle, and still counting), not to mention the struggle to live up to our own highest ideals.

And this year, more so than in years past (except maybe 2016), it has been hard to focus on those ideals (and in turn on how to reach them) because the rhetoric has been so vitriolic, superficial, and base. Take the first presidential debate of 2020 as a case in point—with Donald Trump talking over his opponent and the moderator incessantly, repeating dozens of falsehoods, and calling his opponent “stupid,” and Joe Biden referring to Trump as a “clown,” a “liar” and, channeling the sentiment of so many viewers, telling the President to ‘shut up.”

The fact that NBC’s Lester Holt referred to this debate as “a low point in American political discourse,” is perhaps more prescient than he may have intended. While the rhetorical history of American politics is rife with Trump’s brand of ego-driven intimidation, racist dog-whistles, and self-serving partisan narratives, the rhetorical history of American progress is marked by a brand of rhetoric much more befitting those national ideals we have such a hard time living up to. Voices of reason wielding the double-edged sword of literary precision and intimate personal experience have played essential roles in every pivotal moment in the story of our country.

Not to exaggerate the role of the personal essay in American progress—for no amount of thoughtful rhetoric means anything unless we act—but it has so often been the “I” of the essay giving testament to the individual iterations of the American experience that has helped to shift national opinion and strengthen what Lincoln called “The mystic chords of memory,” that bind us together as a country. It has so often been the essay that has pointed us toward “the better angels of our nature.” 

Scholar Brian Norman calls this genre the “American Protest Essay.” A genre in which “writers bring the experiences of those lacking full social status into the public arena.” The genre is an expression of the personal essay’s promise manifested on a national scale—to show, as Rebecca Solnit writes, “how the personal and the public can inform each other, how two overtly dissimilar things share a secret kinship, how intuitive and scholarly knowledge can cook down together, how discovery can be a deep pleasure.”

In fear and humility, and knowing the inadequacy of what follows, I offer a brief, incomplete list of essayists and essayistic thinkers who’ve reminded Americans of the intrinsic relationship between “the personal and the public,” and encouraged us to discover the “secret kinships” of our shared national identity.

Revolutionary essayists such as Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton who helped form our first notion of what it meant to be American. Abolitionist writers such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs whose narratives asserted the humanity of four million slaves. Advocates for women’s suffrage such as Susan B. Anthony; indigenous writers such as Zitkála-Šá whose vivid journalism helped expose mistreatment of native peoples; the fireside chats of Franklin D. Roosevelt that helped give America the courage to enter World War II; the voices of John Muir and later Rachel Carson on behalf of the environment; writers of the civil rights movement—James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and so many others whose essays on being black in America continue to shape the way we envision race; Larry Kramer’s AIDS and LGBTQ advocacy, Gloria Anzaldúa’s voice for Chicanx culture, Barbara Ehrenreich’s voice for the poor, and on and on to the many stellar civic-minded writers of today: Claudia Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rebecca Skloot, J.D. Vance, Terry Tempest Williams, Rebecca Solnit, and Saeed Jones, to name just a few.

In 1961 James Baldwin wrote, “The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.” Against the backdrop of so much failed humanity in our current political rhetoric, it is good to remember the role of eloquent protest—on the streets, in the halls of government, and in the words we read. When we essay America, we resist easy narratives. We affirm the public value of individual experience. We acknowledge the potential for empathy in our neighbors. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we assert a common civic identity that rises above partisanship towards something else—an expansive vision of our national potential that begins to feel like the slow fulfillment of a very old American promise.

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Joey Franklin’s new book Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays is on sale now at University of Nebraska Press. Use discount code 6AF20 to get 40% off.
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Joey Franklin’s newest book is Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays. He is also the author of My Wife Wants You to Know I Am Happily Married (Nebraska 2015). His articles and essays have appeared in Poets & Writers MagazineWriter’s ChronicleHunger MountainGettysburg Review, the Norton Reader, and elsewhere. With Patrick Madden, he co-edits the literary magazine Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (accepting submissions now), and he teaches at Brigham Young University where he coordinates the MFA program in creative writing. His current projects include a memoir about the saints and scoundrels in his family tree, and a professionalization guide for creative writers. He can be found online at joeyfranklin.com.

Election Anxiety Got You Down? Write More, Post Less

October 30, 2020 § 6 Comments

Justin Hackworth Photography

By Joey Franklin

In the fall of 2016, as the insanity of the presidential election approached its fever pitch, I found myself, like many of you, embroiled in what felt like an endless maelstrom of social media debate. Encouraged by the steady accumulation of “likes” from like-minded followers, I peppered my Facebook thread with pathos-rich political ads, Anti-Trump opinion pieces, and lengthy articles by overworked fact checkers, and then I planted my flag in the comment section of every pro-Trump post that showed up in my feed.

It felt like rhetorical calisthenics—my daily denunciation of hypocrisy, logical fallacy, and fake news—but in the end, what good came from arguing online with neighbors, high school friends, and that old lady from my childhood congregation? If the goal was to change hearts and minds, then not much.  In all my 2016 social media activism (such an oxymoronic phrase—like “healthy tan” or “bacon cleanse”) I didn’t win a single convert.

In the face of unremitting Trump anxiety though, it was easy to get caught up in what former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya calls “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” of online engagement. It was easier to imagine such interaction as a noble, civic-minded exercise of free speech, than to accept the reality that such debate often felt more like throwing punches on the playground or leaving a flaming bag of poo on old man Moore’s front porch. 

What it almost never felt like? Self-awareness, empathy, and the mind-expanding reflection that comes whenever I essay. If social media debates are generally about declaring to the world what I think I know, and then daring other people to disagree with me, then essaying is a declaration to myself that I don’t know anything, and then daring myself to do something about it.

 Montaigne says it best, I think:

“We only learn to dispute that we may contradict; and so . . . it falls out that the fruit of disputation is to lose and annihilate truth.”

Not that political disagreements and public debate are inessential to discovering truth, but that too often online debate has more in common with Alex Jones than with Alexander Hamilton.

Thus, in the wake of the 2016 election, disillusioned by my online echo chamber’s inability to actually change the world, I found myself in a hopeless stupor of slack-jawed exhaustion. And in that stupor, I nearly forgot that I write essays—that making sense of the world at its most senseless is sorta what essays do best, and that outside the insular and artificial world of social media, I had plenty I wanted to make sense of—white supremacists marching on Charlottesville, a racist travel ban on Muslims, black Americans losing their lives to police and vigilante violence. Toxic male culture, religious nihilism, and a bougie disregard for the poor at every turn. Refocusing my intellectual work away from social media and towards writing helped remind me that where social media so often fails, the essay just might succeed—maybe not in changing the world, but certainly in changing me. And that’s an important start.

In his 2018 book, Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Internet technologist and philosopher Jaron Lanier argues that social media engagement is depleting our creativity, dumbing-down our belief systems, and stunting our ability to see and do good in the world. He writes that too many of us are sacrificing our intellectual energy on the short-term benefits of a social media presence:

What if listening to an inner voice or heeding a passion for ethics or beauty were to lead to more important work in the long term, even if it measured as less successful in the moment? What if deeply reaching a small number of people matters more than reaching everyone with nothing?

And though Lanier isn’t talking about literary publishing, is there a more apt description of what we all aspire to do than “heeding a passion for ethics or beauty” in hopes of “deeply reaching a small number of people?” One might even argue that literary endeavors and social media engagement are incompatible, or at least working in opposite directions.

For my part, in the months and years since the last presidential election, I have tried to write more, and post less. I haven’t managed to quit social media entirely, but I have written a book. And though it likely won’t go viral or win any national awards (or many Amazon reviews for that matter), it does represent the best of my ideas revised and reconsidered over the past four years—ideas born of research, self-reflection, meditation, and a desire for clarity about some of the ugliness in the world and my part in it. And that feels like a small, but important literary victory—the kind of victory that comes not from the closed fist of the social media rant, but from the open palm of the essay.
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Joey Franklin’s new book Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays is on sale now at University of Nebraska Press. Use discount code 6AF20 to get 40% off.
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Joey Franklin’s newest book is Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays. He is also the author of My Wife Wants You to Know I Am Happily Married (Nebraska 2015). His articles and essays have appeared in Poets & Writers MagazineWriter’s ChronicleHunger MountainGettysburg Review, the Norton Reader, and elsewhere. With Patrick Madden, he co-edits the literary magazine Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (accepting submissions now), and he teaches at Brigham Young University where he coordinates the MFA program in creative writing. His current projects include a memoir about the saints and scoundrels in his family tree, and a professionalization guide for creative writers. He can be found online at joeyfranklin.com.

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