May 22, 2018 § 10 Comments
Author Steve Almond’s four-year-old daughter Rosalie interviews him about his depressing new book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country :
Rosalie Almond: What’s wrong with you?
Steve Almond: I have a new book out.
RA: The one about stupid stories?
SA: It’s about bad stories.
RA: Like something bad happens?
SA: Not exactly. There are bad stories in which something bad happens. But when I say “bad stories” I mean stories that lead to bad things happening. Stories that are untrue or that are cruel, stories that make people want to break things, rather than build things.
RA: I don’t get it.
SA: Okay. Here’s an example. If I said to you, “You can’t trust people with green eyes, because they will steal your toys. You have a right to play with your toys, don’t you? But if you see a kid with green eyes, you shouldn’t be nice to them, because they just want to steal your toys.”
RA: Why do they want to steal my toys? What did I do to them?
SA: I understand. But okay, wait a second.
RA: I hate them!
SA: Wait a sec—
RA: People with green eyes should die!
SA: Okay. Time out. That was just an example. People with green eyes don’t want to steal your toys.
RA: But you just said they did!
SA: Right. But that wasn’t true. It was just a bad story I told you.
RA: Why did you say that if it wasn’t true?
SA: Because when you tell a bad story a lot of the time people will listen to you, and that gives you a lot of power. Someone who wants to become a famous radio host, or even the president, can tell bad stories as a way of getting attention. They can say, “People with green eyes want to steal your toys!” And, “People who read books think you’re stupid!” And, “You can’t trust people with dark skin!” It doesn’t matter if those stories are mean and untrue.
RA: It doesn’t?
SA: Not if it helps you get power. If you can find people who feel frustrated and angry and who are in pain, bad stories make them feel good.
SA: Because now they have a good reason to feel angry. If they feel like they don’t have enough toys, or they worry that they might not get dessert, or if they see other kids who have more than them, those things make them angry. Bad stories give them a reason to feel angry. And someone to blame.
RA: But why do other kids have more? That’s not fair.
SA: You’re absolutely right. It’s not fair. In a fair world, we would divide things up more equally, right? There wouldn’t be people with 100,000 chocolate cakes and other people who don’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread. But if you’re a person with 100,000 chocolate cakes, you can distract people from how greedy you are by telling bad stories, by saying, “The reason you don’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread is because some dark-skinned person from another country who doesn’t even speak English stole your job!”
RA: But I don’t have a job.
RA: Do I have to get a job?
SA: Someday, sure. But for now, I think it’s good for you to just go to pre-school.
RA: Because I can get a job later?
SA: Right, that can happen later.
RA: Will things be fair when I grow up?
SA: I don’t know. I hope so. But the only way they are going to get fair is for people to stop telling bad stories. They have to start telling good stories, which are stories that make people feel nicer and more hopeful and more generous. Stories which make you feel like you can understand how someone who looks different from you, or prays to a different God, actually wants the same things as you. Like they want a safe place to live and good schools for their kids to go do and enough to eat and a good doctor to go to if they get sick. That’s what all of us want, right?
RA: Not the doctor. They do shots!
SA: That’s true. But sometimes shots are the only way to help someone who is sick, right? Remember when you and mama got the flu?
RA: We couldn’t fly on the plane to California. We had to come later.
SA: That’s right. You were so sick. But if you get a shot, you don’t get the flu. Good stories can be like that, too. They can be like a shot that keeps us from getting sick, or helps us get better. So a good story is a true story that helps keep us safe, even if it’s a little scary. Like if we want to keep the planet from getting too hot, we have to use less gas. Or if we want to have a government that helps people we have to vote for people who want to solve problems. Or if we want people to have enough to eat and good schools and good jobs, we might have to take a little bit away from the people who have 100,000 chocolate cakes.
RA: Can I have dessert tonight? I never get dessert.
SA: You already had dessert, my love. You had a lollipop.
RA: I did? Really? Is your book over yet?
RA: Yeah, I want to read a different book now. One of my books.
SA: Okay. I don’t blame you. I like your books better than mine, anyway.
RA: So why did you write your dumb book, anyway?
SA: I guess because for writers the stories we write are the ones that get stuck in our heads. Stories that won’t go away unless we write them down. That’s just how it works.
RA: That sounds boring.
SA: It is boring.
RA: I told you so.
Steve Almond is the author of ten books, most recently Bad Stories. His daughter Rosalie has no plans to read the book.
February 12, 2018 § 3 Comments
By Heidi Fettig Parton
In 2002, Carolyn Porter, a graphic artist by trade, was shopping in the picturesque downtown of historic Stillwater in Minnesota. Nestled on the banks of the St. Croix River, Stillwater is a place where antique and up-cycled-vintage stores abound. It was at one of these stores where Porter discovered a bundle of vintage letters and postcards. She didn’t know it then, but these letters would alter the course of her life.
Back when Porter purchased the letters, she wasn’t thinking about writing a book. Instead, her trained eye recognized that Marcel’s beautiful handwriting was both aesthetically and numerically complete enough to serve as a model for a font design. Porter had never before designed a font, but she was eager to try her hand at this creative use of her design skills.
Porter purchased the letters and immediately began the work of designing a font during the stolen weekends and evenings not devoted to her clients’ projects. Porter worked off scans of the letters and kept the originals pressed flat between the pages of a book she put away in her closet, not to be looked at again until 2011, when Porter found herself struggling to get a particularly difficult letter right. That’s when Porter pulled out the original letters for inspiration. In doing so, she was reminded of their beauty.
“I’d been looking at them in black and white for so many years,” Porter told me, “I’d forgotten the stripes in the background and the beautiful buttery yellow color of the paper and how some of the ink was denim blue. I’d forgotten about the ‘letters’ themselves as physical objects because I’d been looking at the words only as characters in an alphabet.”
At that point, nine years after she’d first purchased the bundle of letters, Porter still only knew that the letters had been written by someone named Marcel and that they’d been postmarked, “Berlin, Germany.” Porter decided—on a whim—to have one of the letters translated. It was like opening a Pandora’s box.
Marcel, it turned out, was a man who had written a disarmingly affectionate letter to his three young daughters. He’d asked one daughter if she’d fetched the milk for her mother while she was away in Paris, he’d cautioned another not to pick blossoms from the trees, but to pick violets in the woods, and he’d asked the smallest daughter if she was still sucking her thumb. This was not the letter Porter had expected. She began to wonder why Marcel had been in Berlin.
Porter decided, at some expense, to have the other letters translated into English. The other letters were written to Marcel’s wife, although some included affectionate paragraphs to his daughters. Porter, however, still didn’t know why Marcel was in Berlin. An inquisitive person, she began looking for answers. Each discovery seemed to lead to another; the deeper Porter plowed, the more she felt a sense of responsibility for a story that seems to have found her.
Meanwhile, Porter continued her work on the font and in 2014, completed the design of the beautiful script font, “Marcel,” now licensed through a firm called P22. About a year after that completion, Porter was walking through a bookstore and spied her font—in the wild—on the cover of Anna Quindlen’s book, Miller’s Valley. When asked if she had any doubt whether the font was Marcel, Porter told me, “No. It’s like seeing your own child. I know every nook and cranny of those letters.”
Porter never set out to be a writer, but in 2017, Porter followed up her awarding winning font design by publishing the book, Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate. In Marcel’s Letters, recently nominated for a Minnesota Book Award, Porter tells both the story of her incredible search and, ultimately, the story she would piece together about Marcel’s past. The quest led Porter on a transnational journey, looking for answers. Those answers unfold gradually, layered throughout this book in a way that mirrors Porter’s own work to excavate the man behind these beautiful letters.
When Porter and I met for brunch to discuss her experience writing Marcel’s Letters. Porter brought along a few photos. One showed Marcel and his wife on their wedding day. Marcel’s bride was dressed in black because the couple was mourning Marcel’s mother’s death. In spite of the black dress, this photo shows a hopeful young couple, ignorant of the trials that stood before them.
Before setting the photo on the table for me to see, Porter held it to her chest and ran her hand across it a few times, as if smoothing out imaginary creases. Porter’s reverence for this photo was obvious. I could see something akin to love in Porter’s eyes, like the love shining in the eyes of a mother, proudly showing off a photo of her child. Porter’s eyes remained on the photo a few moments before she looked up to take in my reaction to seeing this photo. She would have seen tears moistening my eyes. I was moved, and not just by the photo; I believe it was the sincerity of Porter’s quest that filled my heart that day. Porter had been entrusted with a unique responsibility and she said yes.
When asked about her experience with Marcel’s letters, Porter told me, “The world is bigger now; I know more about history or, I should say, feel connected to history in a way I’ve never been before. I see how people are touched by this story.” None of this, however, would have happened without Porter’s remarkable ability to embrace curiosity and act boldly.
It’s entirely possible that the letters found Porter every bit as much as she found these letters. Through her tenacity and dedication, Marcel’s beautiful handwriting has been memorialized and his incredible story has been brought to light.
Heidi Fettig Parton holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University. Her work can be found on Assay Journal, Angels Flight, literary west (AFLW), Agate Magazine, Grown and Flown, The Manifest-Station, Topology Magazine and others. Currently, Heidi is submerged in the risky business of memoir making and often forgets to make dinner. She wishes someone would invent the equivalent of cat food for young humans: an easy meal delivered from bag to bowl, deliciously providing all the nutrients children need (no, it’s not cereal). Follow her on Instragram @heidi_fettig, where you can see way too many pictures of her writing companion, Bilbo—the almost cat.
Simple Strategies for Getting Through the Hellish Landscape and Existential Loneliness of Memoir Writing
January 31, 2018 § 18 Comments
By Kelly Sundberg
In November of 2015, I placed my memoir proposal for Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival with an editor at HarperCollins, and in July of 2017, the final manuscript was accepted. Getting that email back from my editor—the acknowledgment that I was done — was one of the most validating experiences of my life, but can I tell you a secret?
It starts with this—almost exactly, a year prior, in July of 2016, my favorite writer had kindly offered to let me live and write in her beautiful San Francisco home for two weeks. I was stalled in my book writing at the time, and I thought that being in this writer’s home would be just what I needed. Her writing is so sharp, so insightful, and so beautiful. Surely, some of that magic would rub off on me? I sat at her dining room table with my laptop, and I did feel the magic. I wrote some of the most beautiful sentences of my book while surrounded by this writer’s energy.
At the same time though, my abusive ex-husband (about whom this book was written) was remarrying. One day, I walked to a nearby coffee shop and set up residency at a table. I started writing a chapter titled “I Love You” that was about my complicated relationship with the words “I love you.” I wrote about all of the times when men had told me they loved me, but the love hadn’t lasted. I wrote about feeling that my ex-husband’s love would last. And I wrote about the birth of my son and the love that grew from that. As I wrote about the birth, and about my husband holding my hand and telling me that he loved me, it suddenly hit me that the baby my then-husband had put into my arms was—at that moment—at his father’s house preparing for the new family that they would have. And right there, in that coffee shop, I burst into tears.
A young man was mopping the floor near me, and he stopped, looked at me hesitantly. I wiped the tears from my face. “Thank you” I said, then packed up my stuff and rushed out.
And that’s where my secret comes in—I rushed back to the generous writer’s house, and then instead of writing, I climbed into bed, and spent the next two days watching the entire first season of Grace and Frankie on my laptop.
At one point, I changed from my pajamas into cleaner pajamas (I only wish that I was kidding about that).
But, finally, on the day of my ex-husband’s wedding, a writer I had never met in person, a poet, Donna de la Perrière, asked me to come to Oakland so that she could take me out to dinner. I didn’t want to go, and messaged her that I was feeling too down. She gently messaged me back that she thought I should just do it, that it would be good for me. Since I’m not good at saying no, I agreed. I got out of bed, took a shower, put on some clothes, and took the BART to Oakland. She took me to a restaurant, bought me two fancy cocktails and a delicious dinner, and we ended up having a great discussion. After dinner, we walked around Lake Merritt, and she said, “I have something I want to show you.” She carefully selected a stone. She said, “This stones represents your regrets. I want you to think of those regrets, then throw the stone into the Lake. Watch it sink and let go.”
I stood there with that stone, and I thought of my regrets. I had so many. I threw it into the lake and watched it slide under the smooth, dark, water.
I went back to the house that night, and I stayed up writing this. The next day, I was back to book writing. A year later, the book was complete.
So, recently, when a friend reached out to me to ask if I had some advice for her as to how to get through the process of writing her second memoir without sinking into too much despair, I had some strategies for her. They’re not guarantees, and they might not work for everyone, but these were some strategies that got me through the hellish landscape of existential loneliness of memoir writing.
- I changed up my writing routine quite a bit–went on writer’s residencies, wrote in coffee shops, wrote at night in my loft office, wrote in airports. Changing the routine kept me from associating any one place with the pain of reliving the experiences I was describing.
- When I knew that I was going to be writing material that might make me cry, I wrote it at night. Something about writing at night made it easier for me to let myself lean into the pain, and I had to do that in order to write the scenes honestly.
- I gave myself permission to take lots of naps. I’m not a good sleeper anyway, and I tend to retreat from my feelings by napping, so I would let myself nap, but I set a timer. I couldn’t nap all afternoon, but I could nap for an hour and a half. That gave me the chance to get through a full REM cycle of sleep, but didn’t leave me groggy.
- I planned lots and lots of lunch dates and dinners with my friends, so that I had regular escapes.
- I did aerobic exercise almost every, single day. Getting my heart-rate going seems to be the most effective thing I can do for managing my PTSD.
- I created rituals that rewarded me, so for example, if I wrote during the day, then I would make myself a delicious meal in the evening and watch Nashville because that’s something I really love to do.
- I planned vacations with friends, so that I always had something to look forward to.
- If I stagnated and wasn’t producing, then I gave myself permission to take a break from the writing. Those were good periods for reading.
- If something from the material triggered me into a breakdown, I let myself break down.
- I reached out a lot–to my friends, my family, my therapist, my agent. When I was feeling overwhelmed, or anxious, or sad, I reached out. Writing is a necessarily solitary act, but that doesn’t mean that we need to do it alone.
Here I am now: I’m fifteen pounds lighter from all of that PTSD exercise. I’ve watched the entire run of Nashville. I still haven’t finished Season 2 of Grace and Frankie. I’m a better cook. I have more friends than ever because I learned how to really reach out when I needed it. My book is coming out in June, and I’m still alive.
If I survived it, so can you.
Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, Slice Magazine, and others. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was selected for inclusion in Best American Essays 2015, and other essays have been listed as notables in the same series. She is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University, and she has been the recipient of fellowships or grants from Vermont Studio Center, A Room of Her Own Foundation, Dickinson House, and The National Endowment for the Arts. Her memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival is forthcoming from HarperCollins on June 5, 2018. She is, we are proud to say, a former managing Editor of Brevity.
January 18, 2018 § 4 Comments
In our latest issue, Chelsey Drysdale chronicles how expert advice from an outside editor-for-hire allowed her to find the cohesive, interconnected memoir hidden within a series of disconnected essays.
“Once I started making tough decisions about what was ‘earning its space,’” she writes, “it became obvious that four essays I had diligently crafted—one for seven years—were no longer needed. Meticulous dialogue, tornadoes, a sudden death, a doozy of a New Year’s Eve, an atrocious haircut that solidified my resolve to move, and the unlikely prophecy of an obnoxious stranger on a pier all got axed. Somewhere is a crowded cemetery replete with precious darlings I don’t miss.”
Drysdale details her slash and burn journey, which resulted ultimately in discovering new material where she hadn’t expected to find it, and recommends the journey to other writers:
“When I’ve heard authors say they’ve rewritten their books more than once, starting from page one, I’ve thought, ‘There’s no way I could do that.’ But I did, and I’m grateful. Now I relish the lengthy process and trust it.”
You can read more of what Drysdale learned in her full Craft Essay, and remember: never underestimate the usefulness of an intelligent, experienced, objective editor.
December 6, 2017 § 1 Comment
Julija Šukys continues her interview series “CNF Conversations” this month talking with David Lazar. The discussion focuses on Lazar’s new book, I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms. Topics discussed include: the role of form in writing, lyric vs. lyrical essays, the interview as essay, the changing landscape of creative nonfiction publishing, white space, images, and what it feels like to have earned the first ever Creative Writing PhD in nonfiction.
I almost never lead with form—it’s not the way my mind works. I start with whatever I’m thinking about and see what kind of trouble I can get into. Before you try to find a way understand what it is you’re trying to defuse, I think it helps to toss in as many monkey wrenches as possible, write the most complicated version of your dilemma, your set of ideas, your confessional conundrum, whatever version of essaying you’re doing. After those feverish early drafts, that’s when form kicks in for me, as a way of creating order, cutting extraneous material, finding the heart of matter.
You can read the full interview here: http://julijasukys.com/?p=4504
December 4, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Phillip Russell
The first time I met Thomas Mira y Lopez was at a local bar early on in my first semester of graduate school. We sat and talked about death and cemeteries—how strange it was to own a plot of land for eternity. Little did I know that Tommy had been finishing up revisions for his first collection of essays The Book of Resting Places, a beautiful, quiet, collection that grapples with anxieties surrounding the death of a loved one and the baggage associated with the places we end up leaving them. The book was recently released, and I had the opportunity to talk with Tommy once again:
Phillip: In The Book of Resting Places a key theme revolves around how we place our memories of the deceased into the physical world whether it be a house, tree, grave, or something else. However, the Thomas Mira y Lopez that exists in the book seems conflicted about these yearnings even though this collection, in many ways, is an artifact of that very inclination. What do you make of that paradox?
Thomas: That’s spot on about the paradox. I envisioned the book as not just being about resting places, but also as a resting place itself. The ability to apply both prepositions to book is crucial, I hope. Because where do we memorialize or elegize the lost if not in books? No resting place is eternal—each one has its half-life—and so the knowledge that this book too is a temporary object informed much of what I wrote. As soon as I granted these memories a physical space I was also, in some ways, changing them.
P: The collection deals with a lot of complicated ideas—ideas that don’t have concrete answers to find. What was your initial motive for writing these essays and how did that change once you started putting the pieces together?
T: This book started because I went for a walk in a cemetery one day in New York. I couldn’t say exactly why I was interested in writing about it, but once I started to think about the spaces I have granted the dead in my own life and what type of memories I started to preserve, the ideas kept coming. One decision I had to make was whether the book would be a tour of literal resting places or a thinking through of the death of my father through those spaces, some physical and some metaphorical. I opted for the latter, as it felt like there lied the questions I could resolve the least, so I needed to try and answer them.
P: One of the most interesting aspects of the essays is the mixing of personal experience and rumination about death with research and journalism. In the second essay, “Monument Valley,” you offer an unexpected parallel between an iPhone game of the same name and post-mortem photography to talk about the subjective perspective we have on our loved one’s lives. How did you approach weaving in these researched topics with your personal experience? For instance, did you play Monument Valley and know right away that you’d be talking about it in your book or did those connections come later?
T: Oh man, “Monument Valley” happened because I had to turn my thesis in and my partner, Sarah, told me about the game right before the manuscript was due. I couldn’t stop playing it when I should have been working and I ended up writing about the game for my aesthetic statement. My thesis advisor, Ander Monson, who champions as he puts it “the bad idea essay” suggested turning it into something. As far as the other essays, I’m not always sure how they came about. Part of it was through reading a lot in an attempt to be receptive and part of it was a mania for parallels. I like playing detective: I would come back to some little statement I had taken for granted in the past—my mom’s stated desire to be buried in a storage unit alongside her possessions like the Egyptian pharaohs—and see what leads I could follow.
P: So much of this collection is about how we remember the dead, it makes me wonder, how do you want to be remembered when it’s all said and done?
T: Part of me wants to quote Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, and say throw me to the dogs, who cares, I’ll be dead. But that seems a bit grumpy—Diogenes was a cynic, after all—and so I’ll say that I aim to end up in somewhere that allows whoever is close to me a space to acknowledge the loss and then move on.
P: This project is about endings and what we do with them. Now that it is out in the world, what’s been your biggest take away?
T: It’s a wonderful, thrilling process to publish a book and I’m lucky to work with excellent people who have guided me through it. But it’s also a really conflicted process—”you run the gamut of emotions,” someone just told me, and it’s true. With this particular book, I realized late in the game that it was a way of creating a second life for my father, and so having it out there also requires acknowledging another loss I never expected to occur. I thought publishing a book would mean keeping someone with you, but really it means letting him go. That’s been hard to reckon with.
Thomas Mira y Lopez has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona. His essays have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review Online, and The Normal School, among others, and listed as Notables in the Best American Essay series twice. He’s received a fellowship from The MacDowell Colony and a scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He was 2015-2016 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University and is currently the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill. He’s an editor of Territory, a literary project about maps, and an assistant fiction editor at DIAGRAM.
Phillip Russell is a second year Masters student at Ohio University where he studies Creative Nonfiction. His work has appeared in New River Journal, HyperText Magazine, Burrow Press, Writer’s Digest, and more.
November 10, 2017 § 1 Comment
As soon as I saw Claire Tomalin had written a biography, I had to read it. She had been an inspiration to me when I was working on my dissertation; I specialized in creative nonfiction, writing about the relationship between Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. Not only was Tomalin one of the UK’s pre-eminent biographers, she wrote Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life. My excitement grew when I read that Tomalin came late to biography, becoming a full-time writer at nearly forty. She writes, “how long it took me to get going with the work I most enjoy and value: researching and writing historical biographies.” I am a full-time lawyer, but would love to be able to be a full-time biographer, and I thought this might be a guide in making this shift.
Of course, that was foolish, as I discovered in reading A Life of My Own: A Biographer’s Life. An autobiography is not a how-to guide; it can only be a story of one person’s life. Anyway, I would not swap my life for Tomalin’s, even if it meant never becoming a successful biographer.
Tomalin describes, with the same care she takes for all her subjects, the story of how her life unfolded, starting with her unusual, intelligent, and artistic parents and early marriage, and continuing through her schooling, work as a journalist, then editor, and finally full-time writer. She sometimes takes for granted her successes and fortune, such as assuming she’d be accepted into Cambridge, which she enters and receives the highest possible standard.
She began writing after much personal difficulty: her husband abandoned the family, followed by an untimely death in Israel. At times, the book seems lacking in emotion, particularly in the way she describes how her husband “came in and advanced angrily with clenched fists raised to punch me in the face.” She uses the same tone and well-measured prose as describing how she organized a carpool for her children. However, I did feel her pain and confusion over the death of her husband, a well-known British journalist, and over another family tragedy.
Tomalin is eighty-four now, and the book sometimes sounds like an elderly person reviewing her diaries. Even so, A Life of My Own is an interesting read and a useful historical resource, showing what life was like in the literary media in the 1980s (including the detail that is attracting attention in the British press: her affair with Martin Amis). It is also the story of a woman with “conflicting desires to have children and a worthwhile working life” and achieving both. However, as the title says, the story is Tomalin’s life. The rest of us just have to forge our own.
Laura Shepperson completed a master of studies in creative writing at the University of Cambridge, in 2015, specializing in creative nonfiction. She wrote a biography of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf for her dissertation. Shepperson was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize in 2017 for her novel, Harriet’s Room.