June 6, 2017 § 3 Comments
by Rebecca Fish Ewan
When I found out I’d be going to NonfictioNow 2017 in Reykjavik, I read The Sagas of Icelanders. How better to get to know a country than through its most treasured books? The Sagas feel like the ground from which all Icelandic literature grows. I loved seeing the pre-Christian landscape when magic still dwelled in the landscape itself. I loved how warriors would pause in battle to riff out a few lines of poetry. I loved the sentences unfettered by flowery words (like flowery). Yet, as when I read Kerouac’s On the Road, both times, I wondered why the women rarely spoke or did anything interesting.
I read the Sagas to introduce me to Iceland, but they also primed me for the conference. Not for having quiet Sagaian women. Quite the contrary, the conference had strong representation from women writers, thank goodness since women’s voices need to be heard. The Sagas tease at the edges of truth, or more precisely, reveal reality as a complex mix of magic, poetry, struggle, body and imagination. I found these same qualities, minus any head-splitting with battleaxes, investigated in the panel sessions and readings at the conference.
I feel more than ever that nonfiction is becoming alive. Facts used to feel like stone, like the things in life that never breathe, but the deeper I dig into what it means to tell the truth, the more I see that stories sing with facts. The conference also made it clear that the people writing nonfiction today are explorers travelling the far reaches of what can be done on the page.
This is my third NonfictioNow conference, so I can sense an evolution and notice a continued blurring of boundaries and breaking down of walls. The panels and readings explored hybridity of form and genre, considered the body in and as story, revealed a diversity of voices and ways to tell true stories. They considered the physics of time.
I’m glad the NonfictioNow team brought the conference to Iceland. This is the first time it’s been held in a country whose mother tongue isn’t English. While all the panels and readings were in English, I had a chance to hear Icelandic writers read translations of their work. My favorite line of the conference came from Gerður Kristný—“I lick away extinguished stars” —during her reading from her true crime poetry, a story of murder narrated by the Devil. Sadly, the book is not available in English. And even if it were, it might not be sold in the United States (America first and all that). I don’t have much hope of ever mastering the Icelandic language enough to read Kristný or any of the other fine Icelandic authors, but I hope more translations are published in English. And that these books find their way to the States, perhaps hidden inside containers of Skyr.
At the same reading, held in a small chapel-like room designed by Alvar Aalto, American writer Ariel Gore read from her upcoming book, We Were Witches, a magically real memoir-based novel. The passage she read offered a new direction for the genre that my daughter used to call nonfiction fiction. True-feeling stories that create a world where Adrienne Rich can be a bird chirping out advice from a tree. I want to live in that world of poet birds, a place where I’m certain magic still dwells in the landscape itself.
I attended or participated in sessions that addressed memoir, tackling issues of the dual perspective (pay attention to pace and question linearity), dark matter (draw cartoons), the segmented narrative (say yes to it), movement (leave home), and debt (die). The panel on time in memoir, chaired by Barrie Jean Borich, revealed what physicists have been saying for decades: time is like taffy, all churned up and delicious. Paul Lisicky spoke of queering time, the way the structure of his memoir demanded to be incremental, nonlinear, as his life had been lived.
The last panel session of the conference fittingly focused on movement. All the panelist in this session have lived uprooted lives and discussed the effect their movement across the globe has had on their writing. Carmella de los Angeles Guiol began her talk with a quote from an essay on plants, on the benefits of having a perennial root system. Movement can generate writing though sometimes, as she noted, “I need to know where my socks are.” Glen Retief saw a benefit to memoir in having a “scrambled GPS.” He noted how it grants “the gift of perspective,” as well as stimulates linguistic and formal innovations. “The fragmentation of moving around a lot” can bring fragmentation to the memoir form.
A lasting takeaway for me was advice I heard during the Q and A for the session on Writing While Working Class, chaired by Sailor Holladay. To help other writers, especially those who struggle most to get their work published, Denise Benavides suggested you “don’t be a fucking gatekeeper.”
Rebecca Fish Ewan is a poet/cartoonist who makes and publishes Tiny Joys & GRAPH(feeties) zines through her own imprint, Plankton Press. Her work has also been published in Brevity, Landscape Architecture and Hip Mama, Survivor Zine and in her nonfiction book, A Land Between. She teaches at Arizona State University. Find her on Twitter/Instagram: @rfishewan. Rebecca also provided the illustrations for this blog post.
May 23, 2017 § 19 Comments
By Marcia Krause Bilyk
The day after Trump’s inauguration, when Sean Spicer stood at the White House podium and declared the crowd the largest in Inaugural history, instead of scoffing at him, instead of declaring him as nuts as his boss, I was transported to my childhood feelings of rage, fear, and despair.
I grew up with a narcissistic father. Our home was suffused with his grandiosity, his exaggerations, his uninformed opinions. Mother, for reasons I couldn’t understand, didn’t contradict or question him. If I complained to her in private about his bullying, she’d say, “Your father loves you.” It felt crazy. Mother warned us not to speak of what went on at home to our friends. Dad’s rages were a closely guarded secret. There was no predicting what might set him off.
I withheld from Dad what he wanted and expected of me: affirmation, loyalty, devotion. I vowed I’d be factual and avoid using his imperatives. This is the greatest, isn’t it?! I was so invested in being not-like-father, it took me years of therapy to discern my identity separate from his.
I thought my reactive days were behind me, but the triggers for post-traumatic-Dad stress are escalating. Trump fires Comey, dashing my hope for someone to stand up to him. I feel the rage underlying Trump’s tweeted “tapes” threat. In the Oval Office photo with Russian officials, Trump’s face mirrors Dad’s boyish infatuation with power. Through an absence of appropriate boundaries, Trump exposes and betrays a vulnerable source. And, now, Paul Ryan sounds like Mother. “No leaks. This is how we know we’re a real family…”
When I’m able, I detach from the news, but anyone who’s grown up amidst family dysfunction will tell you about their hyper-vigilance, their need to be aware, at all time, of where the danger lies.
And so, I sit at my computer and I write. It’s confessional, an acknowledgment of what God already knows is churning inside me. It helps me to identify the feelings I need to set aside in order to access the still and silent God-place within. Writing, for me, is centering, like prayer.
There is a response to my outpouring. Newfound understanding and compassion for my emotional flashbacks make it possible to move on to activities that bring me joy. I gaze at the seedlings on my office windowsill and decide it’s time to plant them in my garden.
Marcia Krause Bilyk is a retired pastor, who works part-time in a long-term residential treatment center for chronic relapse addicts. Her work has appeared in Gravel, The Interpreter, Five2One, Drunk Monkeys, and The Upper Room.
May 16, 2017 § 1 Comment
Our May 2017 issue looks at sucker punches, the canine search for meaning, memory loss, kindness to strangers, and the infinite multiverse, featuring outstanding new nonfiction from Rebecca McClanahan, Sarah Carson, Karen Babine, Amy Butcher, Brian Trapp, Stephen J. West, John Rybicki, Donna Steiner, Kate Martin Rowe, Charlotte Pence, Ashlyn Mooney, Rachel Palmer, Maya Klein, Margaret MacInnis, and Georgie Hunt.
Original artwork by Heather Kresge.
In our craft section, Peggy Shumaker reminds us that language must come alive before our written lives become interesting to others, Judith Padow examines the use of fictional “imagining” in nonfiction, and Jeanette Luise Eberhardy explores connections between visual artists and writing flash essays.
And in other news:
|The Story Cure
Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore has a new book, The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir.“ Booklist writes, “few guides are as tight, thorough, and engaging as this one… In a field littered with gimmicky advice, this strong, lean title stands out.” Poets & Writers adds, “Moore’s signature wit and wisdom are once again on display in this useful guide for writers of all levels of experience.”
April 24, 2017 § 14 Comments
By Sarah Evans
The first type of writing conference regret typically hits shortly after the event begins.
You’ve just walked out of your first breakout session, one that you picked after poring over the descriptions and presenter bios to decide which one was right for you. In the hallway, you bump into attendees who went to a different session — one you’d considered but eventually rejected — and all of them are buzzing about how amazing their presenter was, how their notebooks are filled with words of inspiration, how the whole conference was worth it for just that one talk.
You sigh, because even though the session you picked was quite good, it never seems to live up to the mythic-level one you didn’t attend.
This happened to me last May at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Pittsburgh. Organizers asked us to choose our first session months in advance of the event, and I wavered between my top two picks: “Structure for Long-Form Nonfiction” and “What Do I Write About?”
I picked the first, a session that offered a solid nuts and bolts lesson, specific tools and devices we could try with longer works. Among other things, the session leader analyzed the techniques Jeannette Walls used in the opening of her memoir, “The Glass Castle,” advocating that we start our story, like Walls, “close to the peak of action, right before a defining moment” — before leaving that scene and going somewhere else in the story for a while. The result: you make the reader want to ride along to find out how that opening scene will conclude.
“I already know this,” I thought at first — I had used this technique for years in my magazine writing. But as I continued jotting notes, a question nagged at me: Why wasn’t I also using this technique for my memoir-in-progress? I wrote in the margin of my notebook, “Open memoir with me meeting Mom at 7-11 after the funeral.” Minutes later, I walked out of the talk satisfied that I’d gleaned several potential ideas to play with when I got home.
Then I ran into the people who had gone to the other session. They talked about how inspiring it was, how the session leader had given them all these great nuggets of wisdom to remember and reflect upon, adages like, “A draft is full of sentences that are auditioning.”
Regret rushed in. I appreciated the nuts and bolts, but also hungered for those motivating tidbits to remind me why I was a writer. I definitely encountered some later in the conference, but as I flew home afterward, part of me still wondered what else I might have missed.
Those precious post-conference days are when you may encounter another form of conference regret: wasting your inspiration. You come home with your brain and your notebook brimming with ideas and notes, and then … you do nothing with them. If you’re like me — a writer who also works a pays-the-bills job while raising a young family — it’s easy to return to that former life of not always writing, of pushing it aside until later when you’re less busy and less tired (which never happens). You have high hopes for what you’re going to do with your conference inspiration, and then you leave that notebook closed on your desk.
This time around, the new idea about how to open my memoir just wouldn’t leave me. I thought about it throughout the conference and on the plane ride home. It continued to taunt me as I attended office meetings and wiped runny noses. So within a week of returning to Oregon, I sat down and wrote. I only wrote about a page and a half, but I could tell it was the best I’d written in a while. When friends asked me about the conference, I told them how I’d written this new prologue for the book I hoped to finish someday, and how jazzed I was about the new direction. They smiled and nodded — most of them weren’t writers, so they didn’t understand the import of this development. Inside, I rejoiced that for once I hadn’t completely squandered the weekend.
I wish I could say that prologue turned into a regular routine where new chapters poured out of me every week. Instead, my kids and my regular life stepped back in and I’ve actually written very little of my memoir since then. But just getting that prologue onto the page was a game-changer. It led to me digging out old chapters to revisit with my writing group, thinking about the structure of my memoir often, and feeling reinvigorated about returning to the project.
Months later, I entered the prologue into the Oregon Writers Colony Writing Contest, and it won third prize for nonfiction first chapter. Take that, conference regret.
So the next time I come out of a session and hear the other attendees gushing about their presenter, I will smile, but I will not feel regret. I got what I needed out of the day, and that is what conferences are all about. And the next time I leave a conference, I’ll try harder to write something immediately after, even if it’s brief. It’s better than nothing, and it could signal a new beginning.
I didn’t even get to the third type of conference regret: when you meet that famous writer you admire and you blabber on or say something stupid. If you figure out how to defeat that one, let me know.
Sarah Evans is an Oregon writer who is working (sometimes) on a memoir about her teenage years as a punk-rocker in small-town Texas. She is a graduate of the MFA in writing program at Pacific University. Read more about her at www.sarahevanswriter.com.
April 14, 2017 § 1 Comment
Brevity is celebrating its 20th Anniversary! As part of our celebration, we’d like to showcase the various ways the journal is used in classrooms and other workshop settings. Do you teach from Brevity? Send us a brief (but not necessarily Brevity brief) piece about how you use Brevity: a lesson plan, thoughts on a Brevity essay you most like to teach, reminiscences of student reactions to the work. We’ll be collecting these and publishing a selection on the Brevity blog in conjunction with our special anniversary issue, slated for early September.
Send your contributions by August 31, 2017, to firstname.lastname@example.org
April 3, 2017 § 5 Comments
By Kate Parrish
“The most powerful words in English are ‘tell me a story,’ words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity and art itself.” Pat Conroy wrote these words in 2010, and today, when the arts are under attack—when not even Bert and Ernie are safe—they read more like an omen than a salvation. Without access to the arts, will we lose access to our humanity? How long can we survive without each other’s stories? For us at Rivendell Writers’ Colony, the answers are unknown but our response plan remains the same: create more opportunity for creation. It’s why we’re offering four new two-week residency fellowships this year.
Let us tell you a little of our story. Maybe you’ll find its one in which you’d like to help write.
Rivendell Writers’ Colony, the first writers’ residency in Tennessee, opened its doors to storytellers of all genres in 2013. But, of course, that isn’t exactly where the story begins. Located in Sewanee, Tenn., Rivendell sits atop the Cumberland Plateau, a region forged out of layers of sandstone and shale lifted 2,000 feet above sea level nearly 300 million years ago. Hundreds of caves dot the landscape concealing some of the area’s oldest stories: finger-traced mud glyphs left behind 2,000 thousand years ago by individuals with something to say. Individuals who would have ducked into low chambers, squeezed through impossible passes, and crawled on their bellies deep into the earth to write down their stories. Taproot is right.
Sewanee is something of a literary hamlet, a bastion of the written word. It is home to the University of the South, which is home to the Sewanee Review, the oldest continuously published literary quarterly in the country, and the prestigious Tennessee Williams estate-funded Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Literary juggernauts like Fugitive poet Allen Tate, Agrarian poet Andrew Lytle, novelists William Alexander Percy and his cousin Walker Percy have all lived in Sewanee. In more recent years, John Jeremiah Sullivan, popular essayist and southern editor of The Paris Review, and Kevin Wilson, author of the book-turned-movie The Family Fang, have called Sewanee home. A little more than a decade ago, the university started the School of Letters, a summers-only MFA and MA program, the only one of its kind in the country. For a town with only two blinking red lights, it has a larger literary footprint than many major cities. But what it didn’t have—what it needed—was a writers’ residency.
Built between 1905-1910, the nearly 7,000-square-foot house, referred to simply as “the Manor,” is positioned on the edge of a bluff overlooking Lost Cove. Many mornings the home, the expansive yard dotted with oak and white pine, and the entirety of the bluff are blanketed in a dense fog. Families of deer, fox and skunks move under its protective cover. Lost Cove disappears completely. It is the Manor’s position on the bluff and the frequent presence of fog that inspired one of the property’s former owners to name the space Rivendell after the elven realm in The Lord of the Rings.
Rivendell, which adjoins the historic Brinkwood property, former home of William Alexander Percy, and later, Walker Percy, changed hands for the last time in 1990. Mary Elizabeth Nelson, a Nashville resident with a deep fondness for Sewanee, purchased the property and set to work meticulously renovating it. Today it features two full kitchens, two dining rooms, six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a wood-burning fireplace, a third-story writers’ loft, and a wrap-around porch with a panoramic view of the cove. Rivendell was the first renovation project in Tennessee to earn LEED silver certification.
But Ms. Nelson didn’t set out to create a writers’ residency or a nonprofit. Rivendell Writers’ Colony was born out of one of those “wouldn’t it be nice” kind of conversations that only a long lunch on a back porch in the middle of summer could create. Sewanee friends and colleagues spit balling and dreaming over iced tea and local greens. What if Rivendell became something else? Could it grow into something more? It was the literary piece Sewanee still lacked. Ms. Nelson, a literature lover but not a “Writer” by trade, was listening. And as stories go, the rest is history.
Rivendell, which has now expanded to four residences across two adjoining properties, serves all those who embrace the life of the book. In its brief history as a writers’ residency, it seems to now be fulfilling its intended destiny, as if it had been inching towards this outcome for the last century all along. Over the last four years, hundreds of writers have been able to call Rivendell home for a weekend, two weeks, or a month, joining in Sewanee’s rich literary history in their own way.
We support writers of all genres and writers at varying stages of their literary journeys. Both seasoned and aspiring writers are encouraged to apply. The surroundings, intended to quiet outside distractions (Wi-Fi is limited and there are no TVs), encourage imagination and contemplation. But the accommodations and amenities are anything but austere. Warm and inviting, thoughtful with close attention to detail, this place is meant to feel like home.
In March, we were awarded a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, an organization committed to supporting artists who are also raising families. With this award, we are able to offer four, two-week residencies to writers with a child or children age twelve or younger. If making time and space for writing with no children is challenging, writing while parenting young children can feel almost impossible. Applications for the Sustainable Arts Foundation 2017 Fellowship for Parents are being accepted April 1-May 31 for residencies September-December.
In addition to the SAF fellowship, Rivendell also offers five other fellowships, each made possible by the generous contributions of private donors and our past writers-in-residence. All new applicants are considered for one of these awards.
While it appears there are tough days ahead for those of us in the arts, awards like these stand as evidence of our steadfast commitment to providing writers with the time and space to imagine, create, and examine. We are honored to be a protector of the art of storytelling. We look forward to hearing your stories.
Kate Parrish is a writer, MFA candidate at the Sewanee School of Letters, and doer of whatever needs doing around Rivendell Writers’ Colony. She can be found at kateparrish.com or @parrishdontperish on Instagram.
March 16, 2017 § 11 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
I am reviewing a blank book. The pages are entirely empty – not a single word. That makes it nonfiction, yes?
Because there is no fiction printed within.
And the title is Alternative Facts.
Facts are nonfiction, yes?
This is important, because the Brevity blog only reviews books of nonfiction.
So here is my review:
It is an interesting book. A quick read. The paper is nice. The cover feels solid. The entire package fits neatly in your hand.
By the way, royalties from sales of the book are being donated to ProPublica by the publisher, Abrams. ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.
So there we go. More facts. More nonfiction.
I am beginning to feel pretty good about my book review. I might write some of my good feelings down – in the book, on the blank pages (shown to the left).
Something like this:
“I’m feeling very good about my review.”
Except, hold your horses. (Not literally! “Hold your horses” is just a metaphor.)
But it seems I’ve told a lie here.
So is this review now fiction?
Or is it back to nonfiction, as soon as I admit to the lie.
I don’t know. Ask D’Agata.
But there are, after all, words in this book, but only a very few, printed on the very last page:
Two days into the Trump presidency, the thesaurus gained a new synonym for falsehoods, lies, distortion, deception, and total BS (take your pick). The phrase “alternative facts” has sparked laughter at its absurdity, but also disbelief and fear that this administration shows no hesitation in blatantly rewriting the truth to fit its narrative.
In response, this journal offers the opportunity to ground yourself in reality, to collect and record in writing whatever you wish, and to record your own alternative facts.
Pretty cool, huh?
Here’s an Alternative Fact: I am being spied upon, at this very moment, by my microwave. Someone in Russia is watching me write this review. He or she, I can’t be sure, is quite bored by it all.
Dinty W. Moore is founding editor of Brevity magazine and this blog as well. He is being spied upon, at this very moment, by his microwave