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.
November 8, 2017 § 28 Comments
by Peter Gajdics
I don’t like to tell anyone that my recently published book, The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir, was rejected by over 400 agents and publishers. While working on the Acknowledgements page, in the months leading up to publication, I did ask my publisher if I could include a line thanking “the 350+ literary agents and 50+ publishers who said ‘no,’” since they “taught me to persevere.” My publisher cautioned me against adding such a line, since (as she wrote back), “normal folks don’t really understand that great stuff gets rejected for any number of reasons all the time, and that all writers have experienced rejection. They may wonder, ‘What is wrong with this guy? With his story? And they might start looking skeptically at the book or at you. I understand what you are saying here—but I think it might be revealing too much.”
I took my publisher’s point and removed the line from the Acknowledgements. But it never stopped me from feeling thankful to the hundreds of agents and publishers who all said “no.” Oh sure: with each early rejection over the years I did feel devastated. One quite menacing rejection, in which the (esteemed) editor emailed that “books like yours don’t get published anymore,” left me feeling sucker punched, as if my life itself was now obsolete. I read the rejection on my iPhone while walking home from my day job, and by the time I arrived back to my apartment I was sobbing. Why do I keep doing this to myself? I thought afterward. Why do I keep submitting this book, year in and year out, even after so many rejections? I must be crazy.
Such internal dialogues typically continued after each harsh rejection, followed by weeks of numbed confusion, then I was off to the races again: researching more agents; locating other independent presses that accepted unagented submissions; polishing my query letter; tracking all outgoing and incoming correspondence on my spreadsheet; continuing to edit the manuscript; even (sometimes against my better judgment) praying to a God I didn’t know existed anymore. Thoughts that I could not quite imagine my book never finding a home were often interrupted by the paranoia that I had all along just deluded myself—my book was completely unworthy; I was not a good enough person, certainly not a talented enough writer, to ever get published. With each passing “rejection”—or worse: long stretches of silence and then never even hearing back from particular agents or publishers—the cycle continued: internal homicidal dialogues questioning not only the book’s quality but my existence as a viable human being.
My family never wanted me to publish my memoir. At one point, amidst my querying, my older brother threatened to sue me “on behalf of the family” if I continued with the book. No one in my family had ever read my manuscript, but they did seem to know that I’d been writing “something” about having felt estranged from the family as a young (gay) man, my six years in (conversion) “therapy,” during which time my former psychiatrist had tried to “cure” me, the medical malpractice suit I’d later filed against the doctor for treating my homosexuality as a disease—even (or maybe especially), the fact that I’d included aspects about our parents’ traumatic histories in Europe, post World War II. I knew they knew that I’d been writing “something” about all of this—but we did not discuss it. My family’s silences had always been palpable: a white elephant in the room of our shared history.
Rejections from agents and publishers were one thing, but threats from my family eventually all helped sharpen my reasons for continuing with the memoir, from polishing the manuscript, to pitching it to industry folks. At some point along the way, between the tears and bouts of depression, I stopped viewing this influx of information about my book as a direct reflection of my value as a human being and writer, and considered it as helpful advice. Writing a memoir—writing this memoir—has been a journey that changed me from the inside out. I’d always believed in my story, that there was value in sharing it with the world in order to help prevent similar events from recurring again in the future, particularly for young LGBT people, but if enough agents or publishers told me the same thing about one section of the book, then that was helpful advice I needed to address substantively. Maybe I also needed to actually “throw the baby out with the bathwater”—consider the source, and “move on”; not take it all so personally. If my family’s fear was so great as to threaten me with a lawsuit, then that was advice that I needed to use in order to question my personal motives for actually writing the book, as well as my level of healing.
Some very famous memoirists have suggested that writers should always provide their memoir manuscripts to their families before publication, perhaps to ask for “permission.” Unfortunately, after years of scrutiny, I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t think this is always possible, or plausible, even advisable: in some cases, such as for those writing about trauma, especially a history of familial trauma, I think it could even add to the trauma. What this means for the writer is that they are often faced with confronting very difficult questions themselves. Friends can help, but even they can never replace our own conscience. Questions of ethical and moral responsibility, like when is it appropriate to include aspects of someone else’s life without their actual content or knowledge, become crucial. Just because someone says they don’t want you to include aspects from their life in a book you’re writing about your own doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still do it—but “how” to do it, and “why” it should still be done, may need to be addressed.
I struggled with all of this while working on my book. The payoff, I would like to believe, helped me create a more universal product, because the process itself forced me to grow and become not only a better writer, but more objective and thoughtful in my approach. Industry rejections, I now understand, were never a reflection of my value as a person, but they certainly have been useful in the execution of a final manuscript—or at least they were once I used them to my advantage, and stopped taking them all so personally.
Peter Gajdics’ essays, short memoir and poetry have been published in The Advocate, New York Tyrant, The Gay and Lesbian Review / Worldwide, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Opium, where he won their 500-word memoir contest. He is a recipient of writers’ grants from Canada Council for the Arts, a fellowship from The Summer Literary Seminars, and an alumni of Lambda Literary Foundation’s “Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices.” Peter’s first book, The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir, was published by Brown Paper Press on May 16, 2017. Peter lives in Vancouver, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @HungarianWriter.
November 6, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Katharine Coldiron
When I read Eileen Myles’s most famous book, Chelsea Girls, I found myself regretting my mild little life. It’s a book wrought from the chaos of New York City in the 1970s: sex, crime, booze and drugs, poverty, and poetry. None of that had ever been in my life. My experience with Chelsea Girls was practically anthropological, so distant was the content from anything I’ve lived, and it stirred in me both jealousy and relief.
The book did make me wonder how its author ended up, in a metaphysical sense. In the movies, dissolute youth often ends in a fiery wreck at the bottom of a ravine. In life, how does a bohemian poet cope with middle age? What does settling down look like for them? After multiple books that avoid the “memoir” label, what will they elect to write about that finally fixes it on the front cover?
In Afterglow (a dog memoir), I have an answer, and yet another example of the shadow life, the what-might-have-been, that divides Myles from me. I have never had a dog, and always wanted one, and Afterglow revolves around Rosie, the pitbull whom Myles cared for from 1990 to 2006. In this book, Myles grants to Rosie a remarkable breadth of experience and ability, and they toy with form and narrative freely. An early chapter comprises a puppet talk show on which Rosie is a guest and in which a dream of Myles’s is embedded. Later, Rosie and Myles bat the first-person pronoun back and forth in chapters both confusing and captivating. Rosie calls them Jethro instead of Eileen, philosophizes about Manichaeism, and asks its author what the book is even doing.
“Dog ghostwriting”—great language, funny idea, but honestly aren’t all dog books dog ghostwriting. No dog writes a book, no dog wants a book written no dog reads a book and the only part that might be interesting is the idea that all writers are ghosts. Look at you! The writer spends her life reducing her own existence to that of a ghost.
In just a few sentences, Myles and Rosie 1) expose why dog books are sort of dumb, and 2) hew close to questions that have plagued me for most of my life as a writer: whether authors are as real to most readers as they are to me, whether the experience of reading is normal or actually psychedelic and bizarre, what an author’s name written on the cover of a book signifies.
Not all of their experimentation is successful. Sometimes Rosie’s recorded thoughts are so jumbled that they become tedious to read, and I don’t really understand what foam has to do with art. But Myles’s books always feel this way to me: some aspects hit so hard that they lodge in the mind, crystalline and perfect, and others drag across the eyes as if I’m forced to mop up a soiled floor. Of course, Myles reaches different readers for different reasons. That is the glory of experimental literature: in it, there is no such thing as mass appeal.
I appreciate the sound of Myles, so unlike any other writer:
Meanwhile the gentle tap tap tap of the music of the house still pouring out. One side of the fireplug is blue. Chalk blue. I want to say scrawl. The cat seems to get distracted so I’m luring him in. He looks back at this day. More agitated it holds a white dog barking jumping up and down. The wall behind him is rose faded salmon in sunlight going to white. Blazing. My yard he barks. My sidewalk. We’re close up and all we see is whiteness and fence.
Afterglow is a memoir primarily about Rosie, but not exclusively about her. The reckoning a writer tends to do after age sixty, the backward gaze at a life, is present here, but not in an ordinary way. Myles has maintained the fire, the dirt, and the immediacy that characterized Chelsea Girls as well as so much of their poetry, but they’re using it to examine the mortality of their dog and, in no small way, themself.
Yet this is what writing is. A leaving behind.
The two chapters that discuss Rosie’s death in detail are as affecting as writing gets, but they make up only one mood in a patchwork of them. Like much of Myles’s work, Afterglow is less a unified book than a conversation. With itself, with its author, with its author’s dog, with me, the anthropologist who can’t stop reading about a life she barely understands. Like all great conversations, it ranges everywhere, strikes wrong notes, stutters in finding its way, contains moments of astonishing beauty and insight. Like all great conversationalists, Myles has a profound sense of themself, as well as a willingness to risk saying something totally weird as long as it’s true.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, The Collagist, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.
September 6, 2017 § 3 Comments
Eric LeMay’s new interactive collection Essays On The Essay And Other Essays asks readers to click, scroll, select, and “drive” through the first collection of its kind. “LeMay is the future of the essay,” says Ned Stuckey-French, “but fortunately he’s here now.” In this interview, Sarah Minor writes to LeMay about the tensions between the tradition of the essay and the space of the screen.
Sarah Minor is a writer and designer and the editor of the Visual Essays series on Essay Daily. Her writing appears recently in places like Mid-American Review, Creative Nonfiction and The Atlantic. In 2017 she will join the faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Find her digitally at sarahceniaminor.com and @sarahceniaminor.
August 30, 2017 § 38 Comments
By Shuly Cawood
My uncle and I stopped speaking to each other almost a decade ago. I loved my uncle, and he loved me, but we had an argument that mushroomed into a cloud so thick neither of us could see through it—until years later, when he got sick, and his prognosis became too grim to keep on refusing to exchange words, especially kind ones. When we did finally speak, just after what would become his final surgery, neither one of us addressed the argument from years before. We knew it was time to put it behind us or else be left with regrets. We held hands, and that became more important than our tender but old hurts.
My uncle died weeks later.
Years before I finished writing my memoir, I sat through panels and lectures on how to decide what to leave in and take out when writing about people in your life. Some authors advocated spilling it all, no matter the consequences. Others advocated for the play-it-safe side, allowing those represented in their memoir to read the manuscript before publication, sometimes even letting them decide what went into the final version.
In my first few memoir drafts, my uncle resided in several chapters. There was even a chapter about our argument: his past, my past, the places where our stories collided and burned. But some things felt too private to air to the world, and I worried about who might get hurt—namely, his family. Eventually, those chapters—and my uncle—were entirely taken out of the book, but there were other people I could not pluck out so easily. My memoir is about love and loss, and a former boyfriend and an ex-husband—whose relationships helped shape who I am today—were integral to my story.
When I started writing my memoir, I had written down any memory that came into my head, even if it was ugly, unfortunate, unflattering. The fights, the breakups, the counseling sessions, all of it went into those early drafts. The anger, too, and especially the blame. Oh, the blame. I had plenty of that.
I revised my “final” manuscript three times. And in those iterations, a shift took place. I was learning to understand better the former boyfriend and ex-husband—not just their actions or inactions, but what they might have feared, how the things I did might have hurt them. I kept imagining what they would think if reading my book. Did I talk enough about my failures? Did I admit to my insecurities, my weaknesses, my mistakes? In the end, I hoped, if nothing else, I had been fair.
The day I signed my book contract, I thought perhaps I should find and give a heads up to my ex-husband. It had been eight years since we had communicated. I didn’t have to find the former boyfriend because years ago he asked me (very nicely) to never contact him again, and I promised him I never would. He is not the type of person to open a shut door, so it’s highly unlikely he will ever know about the book, but if he ever reads it, it’s okay. I have imagined it dozens of times already. The ex-husband, though, I had made no such promise of never contacting, and I decided I needed to track him down. Turns out, I didn’t have to. It was only a day or two later that I opened up my email inbox, and there was a message from him.
“Hi Shuly,” it began. “I found your blog and enjoyed reading your stories. It felt a little strange to find myself in a couple of your stories—it brought back some old memories. I’m happy to see that you are doing what you love. I hope you are well.”
Yes, I had written a few blog posts about our marriage, but they weren’t intimate the way the book was. And if they were strange to read for him, how was a memoir going to feel?
I wrote him back and told him about the book, offering to let him see it. He wanted to read the chapters that had him in it, so we made a deal: I would send a chapter and we would discuss it over email, and then I would send the next, and the next.
We began to pass memories back and forth: the salsa dancing at the Corinthian, the trip to Mexico, the move to North Carolina. We joked about things, too—something we had not done since our marriage. Not surprisingly, some of our memories differed. He didn’t always like the way he was portrayed. Always my question to him was, “But is it fair?” He said it was, for which I was very grateful. He never, not even once, asked me to change what I wrote. He never complained. We communicated more honestly about our relationship in those emails than we ever had sitting on the marriage counseling couch together, sinking into a too-soft and uncomfortable future neither one of us was sure could support us for the rest of our lives. In our emails, we offered respect and regret. Time is a great negotiator of forgiveness. It allowed us a greater perspective, and to speak without blame, to take ownership of our mistakes, and to remember the best parts of our relationship.
Fifteen years ago, after we split up, while I was still smarting from our breakup, he said he hoped one day we would be able to be friends and get coffee together, and I told him, probably not very nicely, that there was no way that was ever going to happen. But now, it feels a little like we have had that coffee—without the coffee. And when my ex-husband said he wanted to buy my book, to read the whole thing, it felt like the kind of success I wanted but never dared to imagine.
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of the memoir, The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press, 2017). She has an MFA from Queens University, and her writing has been published in The Rumpus, Zone 3, Fiction Southeast,Cider Press Review, and The Louisville Review, among others. Her website is www.shulycawood.com.