My Thesis was Not a Book: This is Not the End

April 6, 2017 § 8 Comments

2bwby Colin Hosten

I graduated from my MFA program with an incomplete thesis. There was still a lot more of my story to be written, and yet I deliberately chose not to finish writing it. The idea of ending the program with only a partial story had seemed anathema to my goals upon entering the program. Yet I was pleased, even proud of the incomplete work that I submitted for my thesis—in part because of its incompleteness.

The thesis, you see, was technically “complete.” It fulfilled all the requirements—of length, formatting, and quality—specified by the program. I even numbered the front matter correctly and added extra space in the margin for binding. My thesis did everything it needed to do in order for me to earn an MFA.

But my thesis was not a book. I was almost halfway through the program before I learned to appreciate the difference.

Like too many MFA students, I entered my program with grand visions of exiting with the next American masterpiece. Yes, I read extensively and cranked out what seemed like hundreds of craft essays, but I stayed fixated on the goal of finishing the program with a finished book—and not just any finished book, but a brilliant, MFA-polished, finished book, ready to be snatched up in a lucrative bidding war by all the major New York publishers.

My first semester advisor listened and nodded as I spelled out the milestones and checkpoints I had planned for the two-year program, before gently telling me that writing a book in addition to a thesis was a difficult proposition—that, in fact, focusing on a book could potentially be counter-productive to my thesis.

“What’s the difference?” I wanted to know. Wasn’t it just a matter of reformatting the thesis for publication?

She preferred to show rather than tell me the difference, and she had to look no further than my first creative submission packet for the perfect example.

The difference between a book and a thesis was the difference between glossing the psychological trauma of my sexual confusion as a teenager in one paragraph, versus creating a fleshed-out scene about a boy who tortured me daily, highlighting his face, his clothes, his mannerisms, his breath.

It was the difference between using the setting of Trinidad as a mere backdrop, versus bringing the island to sensory life for the reader, almost as if it were a character in its own right, the way Antigua is portrayed by Jamaica Kincaid in her book-length essay, A Small Place.

It was the difference between submitting work with clunky and overwritten dialogue, versus taking the time to reread, revise, edit, and polish a manuscript thoroughly.

And so on.

Developing the perspective, precision, and—overall—patience to distinguish between a book and a thesis became one of the biggest and most important lessons of my MFA experience. I appreciate now that completing a book worth reading necessarily demands endurance. It is an exercise in persistence, not just in setting realistic expectations and then making realistic plans to achieve them, but in the very way I conceptualize the writing process.

The story of my childhood in Trinidad is not a story to be rushed. It must be carefully crafted and finessed with the almost-obsessive attentiveness of an artist. It involves digging deep to make sure I have not left any important nuggets buried. It requires as much emphasis on the storytelling as on the story. I’ve come to see writing as a process, more than a means to an end. And I’ve learned that the more I take time to enjoy and savor that process, the more my eventual readers will, too.

The essays that became my thesis constitute just over half of the outline I’ve projected for my book. I haven’t gotten to the part where the sweet, little island boy leaves his homeland yet. But I think I know how to write it when I do. And I will, in time. There is no rush, you see; the patience is part of the process.

My incomplete thesis represented the end of my tenure as an MFA student. But it’s not the end of my story by any means. In many ways, it feels as though my work as a writer is just beginning.

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Colin Hosten’s work has appeared in such outlets as The Essay ReviewEssay DailyOUT Magazine, and Spry Literary. A former Assistant Editor at Hyperion Books for Children, he continues to work as a freelance writer and editor, while teaching in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. He lives in Connecticut with his husband and their dog.

Smashing Old Stories to Create Something New: An Interview with Melissa Febos

March 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

Abandon Me jacket artBy Zoe Zolbrod

Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip-Smart and a new essay collection Abandon Me, which is about, among other things, meeting her birth father, an all-consuming love affair, and the way we tell our own life stories to ourselves. In this interview, she talks about the process of writing her new book to Zoe Zolbrod, author of The Telling.

Zolbrod: I’ve been a fan of your work since Whip Smart, and after I read it I gobbled up any interviews I could find. I recall you talking in one—I believe it was the Otherppl podcast with Brad Listi—about working on a novel, discussing it with your agent. Now here you are with Abandon Me. When did you know that you were writing another book of nonfiction? Did you leap toward it, or did you have to convince yourself?

Febos: Neither, really. Nonfiction has never been something I leapt toward, nor something I had to convince myself of per se. It has always come for me, and with a force that precludes argument. Here is what I knew: the essays that were occupying me required that I reinvent my process. I also knew that I was going to write a book about meeting my birth father and this love affair that had consumed me for two years. I knew little else. But once I had written about four of these essays, it occurred to me that they were the book. That I was working my way into those subjects in an unprecedented way, through sound and image.

Zolbrod: Please talk about the structure of the book, which is unusual. The initial seven essays are followed by a section, “Abandon Me” that at 170-some pages long could be a book in itself. I’m interested in how you made this choice. What input did your agent or editor give, if any? What factors played into the decision?

Febos: While there were many choices later on, these essays knew their own forms before I did. It was much more a process of discovery than invention. Although later on, in revision, I had to devise some creative ways to figure out how to make those structures within each essay crack open to reveal the content, if that makes sense. I made maps and mobiles; I chopped them up with scissors; I taped them to the walls. I had to uncover a new way of building a piece of writing, which was both terrifying and wonderful, because my process before that had been so circumscribed and functional.

When I started the final, title essay, I didn’t know that it would become so long. I estimated that it would be about forty or fifty pages. When I crossed the hundred-page mark, I knew I was dealing with a very different kind of animal.

I made a decision to completely finish the book before I showed it to any editor or agent, and that was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made, in respect to these things. I didn’t know what it would look like, but I knew it would look better than it would sound if I tried to describe it beforehand. And I am very lucky to have found both an agent and an editor that recognized the strange form as its true one. They didn’t ask me to change it at all. I know many editors and agents would have wanted to reshape it into something more conventional.

Zolbrod: In many of the early essays, you cover the ground of early childhood and coming of age, but you also include “Leave Marks,” “Wunderkammer” and “All of Me,” which explore aspects of the central romantic relationship that is traced from start to finish in the long title piece. They’re written from a close perspective within the love affair. How did you think about chronology as you were organizing your material, and its relationship to your themes of exploring love and loss? How did you think about perspective?

Febos: I actually wrote those essays while I was in the love affair. I wrote the majority of the long one during its final phase, too. I went back and made some revisions, but I was writing and living my way through the book simultaneously for most of it. I would not have recommended this to anyone, but I think it’s the way I had to write it. The writing process was how I made sense of living the experience; it was a way that I processed it. And so, it is both a record and a reflection. I think that you can feel that in the essays, to some degree. There is an immediacy that reflects it, and a mythology to them that marked the ways I build stories inside of that love as it was happening.

Zolbrod: There’s a section in “Abandon Me” that I love. You describe your wide sexual experience, which can make you sound like an uninhibited wild child by standard measures. Then you write, in the context of becoming lovers with the woman who’s about to shake you to your core, “I discovered at nearly thirty years old that I was shy.” There’s much in the book about being seen—the desire we have for someone to see us, the shame we feel about it, the way lovers both can and can’t see us clearly, or can cloud as well as sharpen our view.  There’s another line, in “Labyrinths,” that resonated with me: “I have replaced my instinct for secrecy with an instinct for confession.” How does writing personal nonfiction play into this dynamic, the tension between the desire to be and shame of being seen?

Febos: Writing is my solution to that tension. I know I’m not alone in this, and maybe your interest in those passages is proof of that. I think we all eventually come to understand what Winnicott meant when he said “It is a joy to be hidden, and a disaster not to be found.” In writing, I can reveal myself while still alone. I can try out different ways to name the things I am afraid to name, and then, when I get it right (or as right as I am capable of), I can show it to someone. It’s self-exposure one step removed, and with a privacy we don’t have when just relating or talking to other people.

In many ways, this book is one about the stories we create in love: about ourselves, our lovers, and our love. Writing is also the way I smash those, and the way I build new ones when I’m able to let the early ones go.

Zolbrod:  The book covers your meetings with a sister, aunt, and biological father you’ve seldom or never met. The lonely intensity of encountering strangers with whom you share blood and lineage is so well drawn. As you mention, you were coming into these meetings with the fact of Whip Smart and your other writing out in the world. I love the part where your aunt apologizes for not having read the book, and you’re like: That’s okay! But your sister had read the book before she met you.

Is there any way that having such personal material out there made meeting new-to-you relatives easier, and not only more awkward? In general, what can be the silver linings for nonfiction writers who cover intimate ground and who then have to go to job interviews and family reunions and so forth knowing that the kind of juicy personal details most people keep under tight wraps are available on Amazon for $5 off the retail price or used for 99 cents?

Melissa Febos, author pic 2Febos: When I talk about it being easier in some ways to write myself down and give that to others, I mostly mean the people who already know me. And the strangers who might identify with my experiences. In job interviews, or meeting my family for the first time, I generally tried not to think about it. It doesn’t feel like my business what they make of those stories, if they find them. When I actually want to get to know a new person, I try to act as if that information isn’t out there, because I can only get to know someone by participating in the interaction, if that makes sense. It also feels like modeling the kind of interaction I want to have, which is distinct from the interaction they might have had with the text. People often don’t know what to do with it. By people, I mean my colleagues, students, et al. They don’t know if reading my work counts as an intimacy between us. So I find ways to show them that it isn’t. As a memoirist, I’ve had to teach people in this (mostly) gentle way how to separate me from the text, and our relationship from the one they’ve had with my work.

Zolbrod: You express several times an explicitly non-judgmental view towards what could be labeled as failure or weakness in others. Your perspective has been broadened by what you’ve confronted in your own life: addiction, the mental illness of loved ones, imperatives of the body that defy common sense. I was struck by these beautiful lines you wrote on the subject: “We are all broken. And repair often hurts. And the ways we find to fix ourselves do not always look like fixing.” It’s something I recognize.

This kind of compassion and open-mindedness is so helpful in building relationships. Specifically, in “Abandon Me,” when you’re encountering relatives who live lives different from your urbane urban one.

But sometimes in my own life I’ve wondered about the downsides of a rigorously non-judgmental view. For example, there’s the moment in the book when you confess to your mother that you almost want your girlfriend to do something awful so you’re justified in leaving her, and your mom tenderly tells you that she already has, which is clear to the reader.

When does a value of open-mindedness conflict with the need for self-protection, or actually interfere with self perception? And how does this play out in nonfiction when we’re writing about people who have not just hurt us, but done something morally wrong?

Febos: This is such a good question. It is a complex thing, having empathy for the sometimes hurtful ways that humans pursue healing, or security, or relief. I mean, the empathy is not complicated; it is precious. But the ways that we express it, or respond to it can be. It feels easy for me to see the ways that cruelty comes out of woundedness. It always does. But that doesn’t erase an adult person’s accountability for their actions, their treatment of others. In the past I’ve excused treatment that I shouldn’t have, because I could see the wounded place it came from. And I’ve used my own woundedness, or the world’s flaws, to rationalize my own wreckage. I want to be able to hold empathy and accountability at the same time. Compassion does not require that we receive any kind of treatment or justify any behavior—our own or others’. Being an adult means accepting what we’ve been given, unfair though it may be. We often have to overcome a lot to be kind, to be generous in love and to ourselves. But that is our work. To linger in lament or blame just slows that process, slows our movement toward a more generous way of loving.

Zolbrod: Here’s another line that holds so much. “I had come here looking for something and found nothing but these broken people, who were my people.” Your paternal grandfather was from the Wampanoag tribe. You mention the study of epigenetics, that massive cultural trauma can be passed through the generations. You’d always known you had native blood, and describe being taken to a powwow at nine by your adoptive father, and feeling a distance. How do you view this aspect of your lineage now? Was there anything about writing this book that affected your relationship to it?

Febos: This book included a process of negotiating the difference between claiming a “native identity,” which I have never felt entitled to (and still don’t), and claiming the private thing that that ancestry has meant to me. From childhood, I understood my identity as comprised of many pieces of things: I was half-adopted, had a Puerto Rican father, was queer, had this other father who was a stranger and also part Native. I didn’t feel enough of anything to claim it, so I decided that I was nothing. But a decision does not erase what made you, or what you are made of. In order to write this book, I had to retrieve those exiled parts and draw them together in my self-conception. That was one purpose of this book. And it did bring me back together.

I had also felt estranged, and ashamed, of the compulsive parts of my personality, which had governed so much of my young adulthood. No one else in my immediate family, the family that raised me, was an addict. There were parts of me that weren’t mirrored in them. Physical aspects, tendencies—not all “dark” ones like addiction, but my aloneness in them felt like a kind of darkness. It is part of what drove me to find my birth father and his family. And did confirm that I was not alone, not defective. Those parts came from somewhere, and I don’t only mean the genetics, but the historical and familial legacy as well.

Zolbrod: You open the book by writing about your story-rich childhood, and you draw on your rich knowledge of story and poetry throughout, from Greek and Egyptian to Rilke to stories in popular culture. I’m curious about how you organized this material during the writing process, or just the role it played in the creation of the book. What was the chicken and what was the egg? Like, did you dip into touchstone texts as you were wrestling with your material and come out with metaphors, or did you go looking for metaphors, with a good sense of where to find them?

Febos: Definitely the former. The personal narrative and driving questions of the book were the chicken, and as I worked my way into them, I looked to the texts I knew and trusted to help me along. And the conversations I had with those texts made their way into the book. In many ways, I think of the essay as a thought process, or an artful transcription of a thought process, and so it seemed natural to let them in as I was articulating my own inquiry.

The book also takes for its subject the nature of narrative, how we build it, how it builds us, and so I went to the most fundamental examples of this in my own life: the books I loved as a child, the stories I’ve come back to again and again.

I spent less time looking for metaphors in this book than anything else I’ve ever written, which may sound strange because it’s so thick with metaphor. But it is also an excavation of the metaphors I’ve carried with me the longest, the ones I always have with me. The films, the books, the places of my upbringing—the images and stories that first defined me, and so carry parts of me.

Zolbrod: You’ve talked and written so articulately about how powerful personal writing can be, how far outward it can reach, even as we dive deeper inward into what some call belly-button gazing. The essays and talks I’m referring to (not that there aren’t others), as well as this book, were written in pre-Trump era. Have any of your views on personal writing changed in the face of this regime? Have any of your writing inclinations or habits?

Febos: Belly-button gazing! That sounds adorable. That sounds like something I’m interested in.

My views on personal writing have not changed post-election. There is an increased urgency in me, to be more explicit in the activism inherent to how I teach and write, and perhaps a different sense of economy in my subject choices. That is, I am more inclined to prioritize those subjects that speak to this particular moment, but that still includes the personal. It is through personal stories that we encourage empathy, and that we record the lived experiences that our institutions hope to erase or define or ignore or rewrite.

***

Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. Her essays have appeared in places such as Salon, The Guardian, Lit Hub, the Manifest Station, and The Rumpus, where she served as the Sunday co-editor.

Mapping as Metaphor: Part Two

March 1, 2017 § 3 Comments

Part two of Brevity assistant editor Alexis Paige’s consideration of place, grief, and the river as metaphor, talking with Angela Palm, author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. [Part One can be found here]:

zz-riverinePAIGE: There’s a powerful depiction of sexual assault in the book. The scene struck me most for its brevity and omissions, for what did and didn’t make the page. Can you talk about how you approached writing the scene and why? Can you describe your decisions about what to include and what not to include, and how you came to approach the moment tonally?

PALM: I didn’t want the narrative to become about that particular violence, but instead wanted the incident to appear in the book as one link in a chain of violence, wherein accumulation would be more powerful than individual acts. Because that was my experience: a slow boil of not-quite-right exposures to violence in a culture where such experiences were not questioned, had no language with which to be questioned. The sexual assault didn’t fit my then understanding of what rape was. It didn’t fit anywhere and so I tucked it away along with everything else, but my body remembered, the way a body remembers what’s been done to it at unexpected times. My mind remembered it more spatially, in flashes. Emotionally, I was numb. So I wanted to write it the same way—emotionless, just the quick flash of bodies in space. That window I looked out of, what a body too big to move feels like. A sensation that said waitwhat just happened? is what I wanted to convey to the reader because that was how it felt. The scene focuses on how the experience connects to where it happened, too—the window’s symbolic meaning transforming from excitement and promise to pain and escape. That inextricable linking of place and experience at the book’s heart.

PAIGE: Here, I want to present a few sections of text to show how you seed certain ideas and to show the spectacular weaving you do so deftly and deeply—different modes of writing, others’ writing both scholarly and literary, various epistemological primers, and of course, your own musings and felt experiences.

On the first page, in the first chapter called “Map of Home,” you write, “Where did one town start and the other end? Was there an unnamed part between the two that was up for grabs? I wanted to conquer that yellow land and write myself all over it: this part, this swath of land right here, belongs to a girl.”

Later, after having left Indiana for Vermont, and regarding efforts for you and your husband Mike to claim your own place/ identity, you write about the “One Square Inch” project and about your own search for silence, the silence you find in the mountains:

I believe I fear actual silence—the far edge of quietude. In Annie Dillard’s essay ‘Total Eclipse,’ she describes leaving the site of an eclipse viewing before it is over because the experience is too all-consuming. She plunges into a meditation on existence, barely emerging before the eclipse’s shadow sweeps her under and away for good: ‘It is now that the temptation is strongest to leave these regions. We have seen enough; let’s go. Why burn our hands any more than we have to? But two years have passed; the price of gold had risen. I return to the same buried alluvial beds and pick through the Strata again.’ Silence strikes me as a kind of total eclipse, and this lawn of  Frost’s may be just as risky. It could overtake me if I let it. Pure silence, pure freedom, would somehow reveal me to myself too starkly, too soon. The lighting would be wrong, the picture unsettling, distorted further than I expected in every direction. I want only to see a little bit more at a time, to mine very carefully through the layers of sediment below my feet. To lose water by drops and not by gushes. To fly and return. I want some sense of clarity about the buried alluvial beds, to hold as precious goods the names of   its materials, to walk across them and experience the malleability of the middle, before it’s pressed so hard from above and below that it metalizes. (197-198)

Both of these passages illustrate not only of the artistry of the book, but also, its larger themes—especially the searching the narrator undertakes and the friction she seems to crave between safety and risk, between self-determination and self-immolation, between a desire for something-ness and nothingness. The narrator is drawn to risk—to the “far edges” in many instances, most notably in her relationship with Corey, which is both completely natural and somehow also taboo; he is just a boy and she just a girl, but he is also a convict, and she a writer, a mom, a wife. There are so many triumphs of this book, but one I especially admire is your navigation of larger cultural tropes, the way you push into and through, and ultimately beyond, the ready-made clichés of bad boy and good girl, for example. The twin portraits that anchor the book– both you and Corey—are utterly human and empathetic and raw and whole. What did you learn about yourself and your relationship with Corey—and perhaps your relationships with danger and desire while writing this? What did you learn, ultimately, about the thorny business of being a girl, then woman, in late 20th Century and early 21st Century America?

PALM: My relationship with Corey allowed me to do that rare thing—openly consider the alternate routes my life might have taken. It taught me a great deal about compassion and forgiveness and the confounding paradoxes of being human. It also taught me that I can’t predict where I’ll find support, or a friend, or something true about the world or myself. Being a girl, then woman, in the rural Midwest in my particular family very much asked me to do and be what was expected of me, which had a pretty narrow definition. All the attendant clichés. Be smart, but cross your legs at the ankle. Have opinions, but only if they’re like ours. Go to college, but marry the nice guy with the good job. Mind your manners, don’t speak up. A kind of half-assed, half-informed feminism that rendered much of what felt natural to me—those edges toward the fringe, that desire to engage with the questions or longings in the back of my head fraught with tension and discord. Just being me became an act of rebellion. In some ways, decisions about what to do with my life, my body, my mind, were hardly decisions at all but a fulfilling of other people’s expectations, I now realize. The truest thing about being female–in the life I’ve had–is everyone has a different idea about what that ought to look like and you’re constantly preserving or negotiating yourself in situations in which your being female is a factor in how you’re treated or thought of. And worst of all, sometimes that can get uncomfortable and even unsafe. What I say to myself now, as a mantra, is I’m not at your disposal. Not my kindness, not my smile, not my compliance, not my time, not my body. I decide when to offer these things now. And I no longer value other people’s ideas of how I should act or who I should love or what kind of mother I should be and so forth. As for edges, Dillard’s scene in “Total Eclipse”—getting out of dodge before the total darkness overtakes her—is how I feel when I look at pictures of Earth, or think of the galaxy, or even in fleeting moments of human freedom that I happen to find on the fringe. There’s a danger in that darkness, in the shucking away of every manmade thing, but a thrilling pureness too.

PAIGE: Vivan Gornick’s landmark craft book, The Situation and The Story, distinguishes the situation, the events of the narrative, from the story, “the thing one has come to say.” I don’t quite want to ask what you think your story is (though you’re welcome to answer!) for fear of sounding like an agent who has trapped you in an elevator, but I do wonder if there’s one place in the book that you would identify as especially emblematic of your story—that thing you came to say? If you had to star or circle just one section—perhaps a scene or a series of paragraphs or one metaphor or thread that runs through the book—what would that moment be?

PALM: There’s a paragraph early in the book, page 20, that begins, “Like rivers, people are always folding back on themselves, and then straightening again. Contradicting themselves. Pulling off a bluff even as they try to begin anew, and then collapsing back onto the past.” That paragraph anchors the river as metaphor and holds every truth about this book. It contains the meanings behind the different narrative events selected to tell the story: the pull of the past on the present, the bittersweet experience of leaving and returning home, the power of nature’s natural course nurture’s fight against it, the tug of our public selves on our private selves, the impact a single person or event can have on the course of a life. It holds all of that, as the banks of a river might hold water, and more.

PAIGE: : In the process of revision or editing, can you describe a particular challenge—whether in terms of craft or in terms of steeling yourself emotionally for the task? And what did you learn from dealing with the challenge?

PALM: Right away we decided to restructure the book chronologically and add focus to my relationship with Corey, which was originally a more minor thread. A cohesive narrative arc was stitched across what were originally self-contained essays, and then the book shifted into memoir territory. So, adding anecdotes and memories to essays where they weren’t already organically occurring was a challenge. There was, for me, risk in implying that my whole life could be defined by this person. Which of course isn’t true. Yes, I thought of him and considered reaching out over the years, but the book could easily suggest, by virtue of its balance of inclusion and exclusion of experiences, that I was perhaps obsessed with him or dwelling constantly on the past. I am an obsessive thinker, but I didn’t want to be boxed in by that. I came to terms with this risk by reframing my idea of how modern memoir handles time and subject matter: it’s not one’s whole life, told blow by blow. There are a hundred ways to tell the stories of a single life. This isn’t the only version I get to tell. It’s one version. It’s my thoughts about a certain series of events.

PAIGE: Here’s an obligatory memoir question: what has the response been from those people who are subjects in the book and/ or from your hometown? Has any of the response surprised you? And how and in what ways did you consider your subjects and how they might react as you were writing?

PALM: I thought my family would be less accepting, but they’ve been wonderful, supportive champions. I suppose that was the biggest surprise. Corey has been gracious, and is proud of me. For him, it matters that someone remembered him as having good qualities, not just as a monster. It’s encouraged him to do good works from prison, in the small ways that he can. Most other folks have been enthusiastic and some have told me they’re glad someone else saw life in this small town the way they did. Only a few have complained vocally about how certain people or aspects of the area are portrayed. A few people were put off by my depiction of rural Indiana—they feel it doesn’t represent their experience—the 4H clubs, the fairs, the values of their rural Midwest while others said it is spot on. Many folks have had a privileged experienced of Indiana. And I think it’s a mistake to privilege that experience over another. I didn’t set out to write what is already known. I intended to portray the fringe—those are my people. And let me tell you—there are far more troubling scenes in Indiana than all this. I wanted to bring as much humanity to my portrayal of place and of the people in this book as I could while still preserving its difficult truths. The earlier drafts were tinged with attitude. As I drafted, the attitude fell away and the nuggets of human complexity remained. I suppose my biggest worry about its reception was that no one would understand my compassion for a person who is rather indefensible. Not a single person has failed to see that. It gives me great hope for this world.

PAIGE: What are you working on now, and how does it draw from and/ or depart from the work you did in Riverine?

PALM: I’m working on two new manuscripts—an essay collection and a novel. The essay collection springs from the final chapter of Riverine in that it looks more closely at how I continue to shape my idea of family, and contemplate the utility of the nuclear family in our modern era—its shifting purposes, its commercialization, and so forth. It’s not as narratively focused on my personal life as Riverine, though, and instead draws on political and social and historical and environmental contexts here in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. The novel deals with that core human truth of our not ever being able to really know another person, but it looks at it through the lens of how our internet habits distort our relationships and our legacies of self. I confess that I’ve found it very difficult to write since the election, since the ongoing trauma occurring in Aleppo. It’s hard to find a reason to prioritize one’s own stories or thoughts with so much else that requires our attention and our energy and our care. Still, art is necessary. Still, the smaller wrinkles in the vast cloth of human experience are worth ironing out.

__

Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. Palm was awarded the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Axinn Foundation Fellowship in Narrative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Ecotone, Creative Nonfiction, At Length Magazine, Brevity, Paper DartsPost Road, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor.

Alexis Paige is the author of Not A Place on Any Map, winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Paige’s work appears in Hippocampus, New Madrid Journal, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity’s blog. Her essay “The Right to Remain” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, nominated by The Rumpus for a Pushcart Prize, and featured on Longform. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com

 

 

 

 

 

Mapping as Metaphor: Angela Palm’s Riverine

February 28, 2017 § 3 Comments

zz riverine.jpgBrevity assistant editor Alexis Paige discusses the art of writing place and grief with Angela Palm, author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize:

PAIGE: First, I have to say that I admire this book so much—for its technical and emotional acumen. Kafka famously said, “We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” I favor such grievous reading. I want to be moved, I want blunt-force trauma to the head and heart. Riverine accomplishes both; it made me puzzle over and admire technical and formal maneuvers and also made me swoon at its beauty and keen pathos. Did you set out to reach the reader on both fronts concertedly? Were you conscious about achieving certain effects with readers, and if so, how did you conceive of those effects?

PALM: Alexis, thank you! That’s the highest compliment. It was part instinct on the front end and part crafty planning on the back end—lurching into the magic that’s generated while writing, then trying to make editorial sense of what I was drafting. Early in these chapters, I wanted to bring together my tendency to think peripatetically, my curiosity and loneliness which have followed me everywhere, my sense of longing and loss, and my love of language. Topically I wanted to investigate the way places shapes us, the marks we leave on each other through both love and violence. I wanted to show the way I think—amused at the way that physics and biology and nature play out in everyday life. I needed a way to tell what is, aside from the event of the crime and my relationship with the boy who committed it, an otherwise ordinary tale. And so the way that I wrote about the ordinary became very important. Nothing around us is ordinary, I found, looking closer. Everywhere, the land is not ours. Everywhere, the past has a dark underbelly. Everywhere, what appears to be one thing is something else. What I lack in narrative impulse—sometimes sidestepping intense, revealing scenes in favor of the quiet image or the extended metaphor, I try to make up in intellectual inquiry. Writing this way began to take on a swirling quality, and I wanted the reader to feel that with me. This vortex of thinking through experience. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t just a love letter to the world that says, is anyone out there who experiences life the way I do?

PAIGE: What were the origins of this book? Did you have the concept in mind before you wrote it, or did the concept emerge as you wrote?

PALM: Avoidance was its origin, then a gradual acceptance of my own truth. I wrote around the heart of the narrative—around the crime, around the boy. The earliest essays are located in the middle of the book. I couldn’t untangle my life in this river home, so I broke it down into smaller “maps” I could tackle, as if cutting cross-sections from experience and flattening them in order to see them. I mapped the bar I grew up, I wrote an essay that toured the different churches and religions I tried, another that takes apart the cornfields I worked in and looks at them politically, socioeconomically, and so forth. When I read what became the epigraph—“Every map is a fiction” by D.J. Waldie—the rest clicked into place. The mapping became an organizing principle, as well as a method of thinking about experience. A gigantic metaphor for life. A map, after all, never stays the same and contains a hundred misrepresentations, summaries, erasures in every iteration. Maps are a kind of precise lie.

PAIGE: Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here is rich with place identity, from your hardscrabble Indiana hometown to the menacing pastoral of Vermont. (Thank you for resisting the romantic portrait here, by the way.) The book’s central river, the Kankakee, figures as a literal, metaphorical, and even stylistic force. How did place identity, and the rendering of micro- and macro- portraits of place, shape the book’s structure?

z AngelaPalmAuthorPhoto.jpgPALM: I began writing with flashes of scenes—writing those important moments that define a life. In those scenes I discovered the personal set of symbols that visually represent the same stories, the places I’ve inhabited. So in the book, place—the window, the mapped cell, the river, all appear as images, which become story, which become metaphor, and unfold again as images in a different location. The mapping recurs, the window watching recurs, the jails, fishing, abandoned structures recur. Vacancies recur in the forced vacation of the Potawatomi, in Corey’s absence, in the loss of life inflicted by his crimes, in the aftermath of a hurricane, in the one square inch of silence, in my thinking of the children never born to the sterilized Abenaki of Vermont. The river works the same way, even stylistically as you say—story meandering, then forced by my own hand to run elsewhere, then spilling over itself to where it naturally wants to be, flooding a map, rendering it false. All the while leaving stories in its wake. All of this is to say out loud what I most feel about place: something happened here. It changed people. It changed you. Don’t forget. Notice the linkage across time. Notice everything still alive in a single moment, a single vista.

PAIGE: In addition to the book’s focus on maps and mapping, the narrator/ writer seems driven to map not only places but also individual subjects and how they fit together. You deliciously and obsessively catalogue and map subjects ranging from sex offender registries to entropy to cultural violence to desire to eminent domain. So many ranging curiosities and events come together, as if the narrator understands the larger world through the act of putting it together fragment by fragment. The book’s identity too seems to emerge out of the narrator’s impulse to suture fragments and to impose order upon them, beautifully, I would add. Can you describe your process of managing such a range of subjects with depth, and with such a varied approach formally–from cinematic scenes to philosophical musings to research-driven expositions to lush, lyrical passages? There’s so much to talk about regarding the relationship of form and content in this book. How did you navigate all of it?

PALM: I realized about halfway through compiling the narrative stories that I didn’t want to write a straightforward narrative. It pained me and bored me to be in just my own past for as long as it would take to finish a book. I had just read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and David Shields’s Reality Hunger and John D’Agata’s edited anthology The Next American Essay and Wendy Walters’s Multiply/Divide and Matthew Gavin Frank’s Preparing the Ghost. These books excited me formally and gave me permission, somehow, to pursue this more Frankenstein-like narrative that stitched together and wove together the narrative with my ideas about the world and with the external world itself—other books, films, history, physics, notes from a congressional committee’s findings, and so forth. There was little order, almost not at all until the last edit when I arranged the pieces into a chronology and stitched through them a connected narrative. Writing this way was like Pac-Man. Consuming all of those things outside of my own story and digesting them. The book is a little wild, it’s not as restrained or held together as you might expect of a memoir. I took some satisfaction in preserving this wildness and letting the accumulation do work I couldn’t plan for—I wholeheartedly believe in Judith Kitchen’s admonishment to writers to follow digressions to see where they lead—both in writing and in life. To do it again, I might exercise a bit more control. But I don’t know—it’s a record of my intellectual excitement, a record of what I felt after reading those works that moved me to try what felt natural to me—this piling on of seemingly unrelated things until every last one became inextricable from the rest. It was a risk and there was definitely some push to be slightly more focused, or clearer about how certain things connected, but I think we found a compromise that everyone was happy with. Sometimes you read a memoir full of characters and situations that entertain but still come away not knowing its author. I didn’t want that. I think the form and content of this book reflect exactly who I am, in all of its human messiness.

PAIGE: You won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for this book. What was it like when you heard the news, and what has the larger experience been like? Any advice for aspiring contest entrants?

PALM: I already was in talks with Graywolf about a book deal when I received the call from Fiona that Brigid Hughes had selected Riverine as the prize winner. Because I wasn’t expecting a phone call from the press, I immediately thought they were calling to drop me. Silly—and certainly evidence of my feeling like an imposter. But it was good news! I was shocked, I cried. It was way better than what I imagined winning the Publishers Clearing House scam that I bought into as a kid would feel like. I remember telling Fiona that this would change my life. The book has a narrative hook to be sure—my relationship with a man convicted of murder and my thoughts about class in white, rural Indiana and its attendant issues. But the formally peculiar approach to telling that story was another part of why it was chosen. That meant everything to me because when I was experimenting with that Frankenstein-like approach I was discouraged from it by my writing peers—those same peers who admired the unexpected styles and forms we see in Maggie Nelson or Eula Biss or Leslie Jamison. But I pressed on privately, certain I was on to something, even if I wasn’t executing it very well yet. To other writers I would say don’t let everyone else tell you how to write. Trust your ideas, follow your own digressions, read work that informs your work in some way, and assume you will get to where you want to go. Assume you are able to endure rejection and various other roadblocks. You are. I never assumed failure. I assumed if I kept working hard, looked at each step as an opportunity to learn, kept reading and writing with my whole heart and head, I would succeed. The prize has opened doors for other opportunities but as yet, I haven’t had the time or mind to sit and write something worthwhile. So what I take away from the prize, in addition to the great honor of being published with an extraordinary press, is an endorsement from people I admire and respect that enables me to keep trying my ideas—some people will like them. Try your story in an unexpected form, try it in a dozen different structures and see what happens. Maybe nothing, but maybe something.

Read Part Two of the Interview Here.

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Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. Palm was awarded the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Axinn Foundation Fellowship in Narrative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Ecotone, Creative Nonfiction, At Length Magazine, Brevity, Paper DartsPost Road, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor.

Alexis Paige is the author of Not A Place on Any Map, winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Paige’s work appears in Hippocampus, New Madrid Journal, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity’s blog. Her essay “The Right to Remain” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, nominated by The Rumpus for a Pushcart Prize, and featured on Longform. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com


 

 

Writing the Pain: Memoirists on Trauma and Memory

February 27, 2017 § 102 Comments

Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore interviews Melanie Brooks, author of the recently released Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, featuring Brooks’ conversations with Andre Dubus III, Sue William Silverman, Kyoko Mori, Richard Hoffman, Suzanne Strempek Shea, Abigail Thomas, Mark Doty, Edwidge Danticat, Jessica Handler, Richard Blanco, and others about how they tackle the most painful subjects: zzzBO1,204,203,200_.jpg

MOORE: Many folks, thinking about a project like yours, would assemble an anthology, with various authors all writing essays on the theme. What inspired you to instead hop in your car and interview these writers?

BROOKS: It wasn’t so much inspiration as it was desperation. I didn’t start this project thinking I was writing a book. I started because I was paralyzed by the process of trying to tell my own hard story – so paralyzed that I wasn’t necessarily convinced I’d survive. I used the excuse of a semester project for my MFA to get the ball rolling because I knew I needed to see for myself that, despite having written through their really hard stories, all of these writers were still breathing. I needed them to look me in the eye and tell me that I’d keep breathing, too. In reading their memoirs, I’d felt a personal connection to each one of them, and I hoped for that same intimacy in our conversations. Intuitively, I recognized that in order to foster that, it would necessitate face-to-face contact when possible. I wanted these writers to know I was sincere and to trust that I’d take good care of the generous words they offered me. Then, once I started meeting up with them in really cool and diverse environments, I was hooked. I just wanted to keep doing it. When I began to transcribe the interviews, I realized how much the atmosphere of the conversations played into the conversations themselves. Writing them in narrative scene versus Q&A just felt right and it gave a natural shape to the project that I knew I wanted to build on when I understood it was becoming a book.

MOORE: Your book is as much about writing and memory as it is about writing and trauma.  Would you agree with that?

BROOKS: Absolutely. Whether our past is traumatic or not, writing about it still requires the writer to re-enter moments of lived experience and uncover the stories those moments hold. Andre Dubus III points out in our interview that “the opposite of the word remember is not forget, it’s dismember. Chop, chop, chop. Remember means to put back together again.” Putting our stories back together is the basic challenge of memoir writing. We have to pull out the memories and hold them close to the light so that we can see what’s really present in those moments. That close examination can expose stories we didn’t know we had and can also cause us to completely reevaluate the way we’ve always told ourselves the stories. There’s an underlying responsibility to be as true to those stories as we can, even though memory is, by nature, subjective. Carrying that burden of responsibility can feel lonely at times. I wanted to hear about those lonely treks into memory from each one of these authors because then I might feel less lonely on my own trek.

zz-melanieMOORE: What surprised you in the answers you received?

BROOKS: I honestly believed at the beginning of my memoir journey that writing my story would enable me to let it go. Leave it behind me somewhere. I was secretly hoping these writers would confirm this belief. They didn’t. Again and again, I heard that writing about the trauma doesn’t erase the trauma. Marianne Leone confronted my misconception head on: “I think what you’re hoping I’m going to tell you is that I had this great pain and that writing this book took the great pain away. I wish I could tell you that there’s a lessening of the pain. It’s just different.” Mark Doty’s words reiterated her perspective. “A rupture in your life of that kind remains a hole, a tear. Despite the fact that it doesn’t repair, doesn’t make the rupture in your life go away, it’s a very satisfying thing to give shape to your story. To concretize it. To have something you can give people and say, ‘I made this. This stands for me.’” And Richard Hoffman said, “You can never entirely redeem the experience. You can’t make it not hurt anymore. But you can make it beautiful enough so that there’s something to balance it in the other scale.” I listened to them, and I began to understand that my story is not something I can let go. It’s no longer something I even want to let go. I can, though, lighten the burden so it’s not quite so heavy to carry and maybe carry it differently. Putting its weight into words on the page is helping me to do that.

MOORE: What advice do you, or the writers you interview in Writing Hard Stories, have for beginning writers who feel the trauma in their lives is too hard to write, too impossible to explain, or too difficult to explore?

BROOKS: First, be kind to yourselves. It is hard to write about the trauma in our lives. It does often feel impossible to explain or too difficult to explore. So, afford yourselves some grace when those feelings surface and try not to minimize them. But also take heart, as I did, from the insights of others who have journeyed through their stories (and cried and felt paralyzed and often side-swiped by grief) and have made it to the other side. As Kyoko Mori says, “These things already happened.” We are survivors already because we are here now and the trauma is somewhere behind us. Find strength in that reality to take that first step into writing your stories. And, as Abigail Thomas told me when we spoke, “Don’t forget, it’s scarier not to do it than to do it.”

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Melanie Brooks is a freelance writer, college professor, and mother living in Nashua, New Hampshire with her husband, two children and yellow Lab. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. She teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, Merrimack College in Andover, Massachusetts, and Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Bustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus, the Huffington Post, Modern Loss, Solstice Literary Magazine, the Recollectors, the Stonecoast Review and Word Riot. Her almost-completed memoir explores the lasting impact of living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995. Her writing is the vehicle through which she’s learning to understand that impact.

 

The Language of Appalachian Storytelling: Cat Pleska’s Memoir Riding on Comets

February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

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An interview conducted by Jeanette Luise Eberhardy:

I return to books that invite me to be “the reader as artist” which Toni Morrison described in her essay by the same title. When I read like an artist, I can almost feel the opening of my imagination with the language of story where heart and mind join together. For me, this experience with imagination is particularly strong when a writer explores the connection between story and nature, including the nature of family. In Riding on Comets: A Memoir by Cat Pleska, I listen for the sound when she writes “thunder’s timbre deepened and boomed and rattled the glass in the windows.”  And when Pleska describes an underground spring flowing towards a creek, I can see how it “stains the grass like tears on a cheek.” I trust this storyteller who expresses such a deep understanding of our place in nature.  I join her when she begins to build a home within herself from what memoirist Mary Karr calls “a passion for the watery element of memory.” Understanding this passion is how I am able to take the leaps of imagination with little knowledge of the storytelling traditions in Pleska’s Appalachian culture.

Last week, I caught up with Cat Pleska at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Washington DC. At this writer’s conference, we were invited to open our perspectives on storytelling by “braiding subgenres into a coherent whole” and “experiencing broad ranges of cultural and artistic events.” I asked Pleska to share with us some of her perspectives on language and story and culture.

Jeanette: When you wrote your memoir, what were you hoping for?

z cat.jpgCat: I wanted to bring forward the language of story from my culture. In my memoir, the glue that held a rambunctious, challenging family together was our stories and our habit of gathering on a hot summer night as we watched fireflies light up the ground and trees to mirror the millions of stars in the night sky. We told stories all night long.

Jeanette: Language of story from your culture?

Cat: In my family storytelling tradition, we bring you to the edge of the moment, forgoing the traditional setting of backstory, so the lesson, the meaning, is embedded in the listener’s psyche sooner, without giving away the surprise at the end. We deliver the scene quickly so the listener may “see” the setting for the lesson and “feel” what’s about to happen. Embedded in this approach to story is the cultural understanding of our way of learning from each other. Today we often call this type of storytelling memoir.

Jeanette: What is memoir to you?

Cat: Memoir is asking yourself the right question that helps both the writer and reader connect at the level of the heart. Asking the right question allows you to explore the experience in a curious way, that may bring to light the deeper meaning of it.

Jeanette: What was one of your underlying questions?

Cat: One of the most pressing questions I faced was how to express navigating my relationship with fear.

Jeanette: Like in your story “Devil’s Seat” where you challenge yourself as an eight-year-old to climb out on a rock formation?

Cat: Yes, I climbed out, facing a perilous drop below the rock outcropping, but when I scooted back from the edge, I saw my father’s and my grandfather’s initials carved in the rock surface. Every child who undertook that challenge of fear took a small rock and carved their initials into the surface. I carved mine larger than theirs.

Jeanette: Is there a connection between the larger initials you carved in the rocks and your interest in evolving the stories in your culture?

Cat: The men in my culture embraced the unexpected and were therefore seen as brave and courageous. The women were the keepers of stories on how we survived. In my memoir, I am integrating both of these types of stories. As I wrote, I felt that I had no choice. I was driven to combine the courage one needed to face the unexpected with the courage needed for survival. That is to say, a larger story than the one told by men alone or by women alone.

Jeanette: Your comments remind me of what Edwidge Danticat said: “When you have no choice, when it haunts you…that’s the time to tell your story.”

Cat: For us, storytelling was all entertainment and connection and shared knowledge and a bonding with relatives so that when daylight dawned, the family remained together. The way in which we wove our stories was unique to our, one could say, mini-culture within the larger Appalachian culture. The way we told stories developed into a style that denoted our methods, our techniques which involved an almost unconscious word selection and syntax development, that to this day I rarely hear from any other culture. That weaving of particular language and style further helped me bring together my stories of the men and women I write about.  

Jeanette: We enter another culture’s stories in a variety of ways. For me, I may begin by sensing the writer’s connection to nature. For others, they may appreciate the use of humor. And still for others there is this deep recognition of Pleska’s instinct to explore the use of language of story in her culture. Whatever our way into stories that are different from our own, we can enlarge our sense for living in our beloved communities on this precious planet and transcend what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”

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Cat Pleska, MFA, is an educator, author, editor, publisher, and storyteller. She is a frequent writing workshop leader and is an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio and is a book reviewer for West Virginia University Press. She edited the anthology Fed from the Blade: Tales and Poems from the Mountains, and her first book, Riding on Comets: A Memoir was published by West Virginia University Press May 2015 and short-listed for the 2015 book of the year in the memoir category by Foreword Magazine. Cat is the 2016 recipient of the Governor’s Arts Award for Support of the Arts. Her cookbook One Foot in the Gravy—Hooked on the Sauce: Recipes you’ll Relish was just published by Mountain State Press. She teaches in the humanities program for Marshall University and is a full time instructor for Arizona State University’s Master of Liberal Studies Program.

Jeanette Luise Eberhardy, PhD, MFA, is a teacher, writer, and storyteller. Eberhardy serves as Program Director, 1st Year Writing and Assistant Professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. At the 17th Annual Women’s International Conference in Berlin, Eberhardy gave the opening address Your Story Matters to 800 women business leaders. She has delivered her Storyforth seminars in Egypt, Sweden, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and the U.S.  Eberhardy is the recipient of the 2016 MassArt Faculty Fellowship Grant for her project: Global Meaningful Work. She publishes on the craft of writing and she is currently working on the book Why I Write. Why I Create: Global art students show how they express themselves. Eberhardy can be reached at WivInc.com.

Hippocampus Magazine Releases First Book

February 7, 2017 § 1 Comment

From our pals at Hippocampus:

 

4150n0szxwl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Hippocampus Magazine is pleased to announce the release of its first print title from its book division, Selected Memories: Five Years of Hippocampus Magazine. The collection features 33 essays or memoir excerpts first published in the online magazine between May 2011 and early 2016. From the jacket copy:

Selected Memories: Five Years of Hippocampus Magazine is a celebration of where we’ve been and a testament to the power of telling true stories. Since we launched our journal in 2010, we’ve published more than 600 pieces of creative nonfiction from more than 500 emerging and established writers. We’re proud of our contributors, and we admire their bravery for sharing pieces of themselves. This collection is a representation of our first five years. It’s filled with more than two dozen stories that moved us, made us laugh, made us cry, made us want to read them again.

The books division is actively seeking queries for memoirs, essay collections, and other book-length works of creative nonfiction, and it also plans to produce the occasional anthology. To learn more about what Hippocampus is looking for, visit books.hippocampusmagazine.com.

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