To Tell or Not to Tell: The Conundrum of the Nonfiction Writer
August 24, 2022 § 4 Comments
By Holly Hagman
TW/CW: Mention of sexual assault
While I was in the process of earning my MFA, constantly drafting but never sending out any pieces, a friend of mine announced their first acceptance to a literary journal. While celebrating over dinner and white wine, they told us the essay was about their mother’s alcoholism. I asked them if they had told their mother about the piece – its existence, acceptance, and pending publication.
“Hell no,” they told me, “And I don’t plan to.”
The concept, to me, was foreign and bizarre. At least, that’s what I thought, until I wrote the piece I never expected to write.
About halfway through my MFA after most of the writers in my close friend group had been published, I was spending my down time on Submittable, sifting through calls for creative nonfiction writing when a title labeled “Recipe for Healing” popped up in my feed. It was a call for submissions to a magazine that published true stories from survivors of sexual violence and assault. Suddenly, my fingers moved across the keyboard involuntarily. Before long, I had a completed draft in front of me that shared a story I hadn’t told anyone – not even myself – since the night it happened.
I agonized about whether or not to send it out. I closed my eyes and clicked submit, then breathed a sigh of relief. I figured it was a rite of passage to get rejected before the idea of publication was even a remote possibility. Soon, I would be sure to receive a form email from Submittable telling me this work was not ready to be shared with the world.
“Thank you for sending us your piece,” the email read, and where I expected to see a “We regret to inform you…” instead was a “We are delighted to let you know…”
Flabbergasted. Astonished. Bewildered. Someone wanted work that I wrote? An editor read my writing next to a bunch of other talented writers selected me?I wanted to shout it from the rooftops or pass out business cards to random passersby on the street that read “Holly Hagman – Published Author.” When taking into account the fact that the editor could have slept poorly the night before or gotten into an argument with their spouse or spilled their morning coffee on their pants before reading submissions, it’s a miracle when anyone gets published.
In my excitement, I responded that I would be happy to publish this piece, which was both true and false. I was happy that my work was being recognized, but I was terrified to share this work with anyone, especially my family. The “Hell no, and I don’t plan to” from the year before seemed more appropriate now than it did at the time. I no longer wanted to rush to Staples and invest in business cards. Instead, I wanted to wake up from this dream, check my email, and find it had all been a figment of my imagination.
Leading up to the publication date, I thought of my options. I could email the publishers and pull the piece, which, let’s face it, was not a real possibility for my “hungry-for-a-publication” self at this time. I could reach out and change the name associated with the essay to a pen name, like the one I made up for the time I almost got a job as a ghostwriter. That didn’t seem fair either, though, because, after all, this was my story, and if anyone was going to share it, it seemed like it should be me.
I decided to tell. Luckily, it went surprisingly better than I expected. Since then, my confidence has been bolstered such that I’ve published work about my strained relationship with my father, my mother’s physical disabilities, a toxic workplace, my period, and many other proverbial taboos.
The desire to share our stories is innately human, as is the instinct for self-preservation. In the end, it can be nerve-wracking to make ourselves vulnerable, our skeletons in the closet exposed in black and white for all the world to see. The option to remain anonymous can only be determined right or wrong by the sharer of their story.
There is something to be said, however, about the sense of community surrounding the subjects that seem impossible to write. I find that the stories that are hardest to share are often the ones that are most needed.
Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in creative writing and an MAT in secondary education. She also earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University where she has been an assistant editor for Brevity and the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit. She is a former nonfiction editor for Variant Literature and the current nonfiction editor for Porcupine Literary. She teaches high school English at a therapeutic school for students with emotional and psychiatric illness. She tweets @hollyhagman.
What We’re Looking For: Michael Steinberg Essay Prizes
January 24, 2022 § Leave a comment
From Patrick Madden and Joey Franklin
This winter marks the third Michael Steinberg Memorial Essay Prize , since it was named in honor of Fourth Genre’s founding editor, who died at the end of 2019. It’s also our third year as editors, and the second year we’re also holding a Multimedia Essay Contest. All this has us taking stock of the curious responsibility that falls every year, not only to our guest judges, but also to us as editors. Looking back through the archives, we see two decades of preoccupation with similar questions: What constitutes creative nonfiction? What makes up a memoir? What passes as a personal essay? Since the journal’s first issue, whether it be in roundtable discussions, craft essays, or editorial notes, the directors and contributors of Fourth Genre have attempted to describe, define, and delimit the boundaries of the personal essay.
We thought it might be useful to any of Brevity’s readers who are working toward their own understanding of the genre for us to briefly highlight some of those ideas from the past 20 years. And we hope it might also give interested readers a glimpse of “what we’re looking for” as we accept submissions for our two contests.
First, a little wisdom from our personal essay contest namesake, Michael Steinberg:
- “Most of my memoirs grow out of a need to interrogate my own thoughts and feelings in the hope of discovering something about myself that I couldn’t have found out any other way.”
- “I also write memoirs because the form suits my temperament and disposition . . . I have a predilection for self-scrutiny and rumination, as well as for self-disclosure.”
- “I believe that the artfully crafted personal essay or memoir is uniquely suited for our times. I say this because today our need to pay attention to the singular, idiosyncratic human voice is perhaps more urgent than ever before.”
- “A lot of nonfiction writers are narrating only the literal story of their experience, and leaving out the ‘inner story’; that is, the story of their thinking.”
- “The mind never stops searching for connections and asking questions. And that’s the thinking/feeling self I’d like to see more of in the personal narratives I read, both as a teacher and as an editor.”
- “When we’re reading manuscripts, we’re always hoping to encounter a fully present narrator and a curious, idiosyncratic mind and imagination in the act of thinking things out on the page.”
And here are a few gems from this year’s Steinberg Memorial Essay Prize judge, Mary Cappello, author most recently of Lecture (Transit Books, 2020):“In order to write or make art one must be in love, not with an individual per se, but with life itself.”
- “Have you noticed that literary nonfiction is getting more and more wisp-like these days? I’m happy for an alternative robustness. The license for a work to morph, to exceed its placement, forgetful of itself, for a spell, even if, in the end, words insist on returning to the airy nothing from whence they spring.”
- “It’s a problem that I have with finding pretty much everything interesting. It might be pathological. Or it might be what makes me an essayist.”
And finally, from Wayne Koestenbaum , this year’s judge for the Multimedia Essay Contest and author, recently, of Figure It Out (Soft Skull Press, 2020).
- “What no one taught me is that to write I must sink away from one form of conscious navigation and surrender to what language decrees. I must dwell firmly enough within the language-net to feel that my experiences in the moment of writing are a consequence of the words and not simply their catalyst.”
- “I believe in the persistence of play. All my writing is grounded in the practice of reckless verbal improvisation. I think it’s Winnicott who says somewhere that health is the ability to play.”
- “I listen to what language tells me; I instigate the process, but once the language commences its relentless hum, punctuated by doldrum and silence and distraction and Instagram and anxiety, then I occupy the position of the cook who has been given the lamb and the milk and the lettuce but didn’t create them. … I can’t make myself known to you without this rule-governed armature, whose wendings and reprisals must take precedence over my ideas, even if language’s caparisoned marauders need the mulch of my ideation in order to have a ground to trample.”
“What we’re looking for” has never had a straightforward answer at Fourth Genre (nor likely at any other literary journal). We are all looking for good writing, and for those of us on the hunt for the best of the personal essay, we’re also looking for good thinking, expressed artfully.
We hope you find these few quotes to be helpful and inspiring, and if you’ve got a project in your files that you think might fit, we hope you’ll consider sending it to one of our contests by the March 15 deadline.
Of Charcuterie, Teleportation, and the Digressive Essay
March 22, 2021 § 3 Comments
In her latest book, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, Nicole Walker continues her deep essayistic dive into sustainability, climate change, global food issues, and her own eating obsessions, layering in the overlapping impact of our unsettling pandemic year. Her insights remain refreshingly honest and are, at times, spiced with unexpected humor. Brevity founder and fellow pancetta-enthusiast Dinty W. Moore interviews Walker on her book, on digression in the essay, and on the possibility of hope in desperate times:
Dinty W. Moore: First, a confession. More than a decade ago I was visiting the Arizona city where you live and you invited me to join you for dinner. “How about charcuterie?” you said, pronouncing it as if you knew exactly what you were proposing, and I instinctively blurted, “Yes, I’d really love that,” because I didn’t want to seem unsophisticated. Back then, I had no idea what “charcuterie” really meant, though I do still remember the enticing selection of meats, cheeses, pickled vegetables, and spreads that ensued. So maybe I’m not the best person to speak with you about Processed Meats, or maybe I am the perfect person. In any case, it is too late – we have agreed. So, here’s my question: Do you remember that dinner and I did I fool you at all?
Nicole Walker: This question is the most on-point question you could ask. I just wrote an essay for the NYT and the only real edit was, can you make it clear how you know what charcuterie is and how much privilege comes with making sure your kid eats 9 colors of fruits and vegetables a day? An obsession with food isn’t becoming. Making your guests feel out of place is definitely against the Emily Post’s rules of etiquette. Your graciousness at that dinner covered for you, if not me. I remember us sitting on the deck, eating cheese and prosciutto, and then maybe also having tacos? Max and Zoe adored you. You talked to them like they were the adults they thought they were, even though they were two and six at the time.
This story is making me want to hang out with you. If I could spend the energy to build a teleport machine instead of curing strange meats, I should. But maybe charcuterie is its own kind of teleport machine. I know books are. The main reason to publish books is to be invited to places to read or to be invited to talk with you. It’s a kind of teleport machine. The book came out earlier this month. I made pancetta for the book release, which took four weeks to cure. With book and pancetta, I am bringing myself to book readers and charcuterie eaters, which is all I ever really wanted to do.
DWM: Speaking of charcuterie as its own kind of teleportation device, what I love about your book is how processed meat, your ostensible subject, becomes a vehicle to explore so many deeper themes: pregnancy, plastic waste, parenthood, pandemic, owlets, and anti-bodies. The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras first expounded the theory of “everything-in-everything,” which is the basis for poetic (and essayistic) metaphor. Look closely at any one thing and all things will be revealed. Did you imagine at the outset of Processed Meats that salami, capicola, bologna, and prime rib would lead you in all these directions, open all these portals into culture and human existence?
NW: I was talking with a friend who is working on this big book project about her father’s time in a concentration camp in the Ukraine and she was trying to figure out a structure to the book because otherwise she just chases after details and the book sprawls. I said to her, well, you can just be like me and see where the words take you, but I get that such an approach is an unconventional one. Maybe even a vilified one. Cohesion. Topic sentences. Stay on target, Luke is told when he’s gunning for the Death Star’s weak spot. Max says of nachos that the triangle ones are better for chasing the cheese. It is nice to have a target and maybe even an angular and pointed kind of targeting device. Circles have a hard time getting the cheese.
But in writing, the target is always moving. Derrida said so in “Structure, Sign, and Play,” obviously riffing off Anaxagoras—you’re more likely to get at the thing if you approximate the thing itself. If you get closer to it. Sidle up. Don’t spook it! And metaphors are the best approximators. I take my cue from poetry so I can leap and play but I also know it can seem unserious—that I’m not making a point and completing an argument in my essays.
But my larger, forever-point is that we can understand things better from supremely local positions. Bologna and prime rib, shrimp and capicola we can know. Meat in particular is a weird way to approximate the center. Our bodies are subject to so many strange manipulations—not so many as the cow’s, of course, but still—from sitting unmovingly in church to forcing it on 100-mile runs, to suffering real hunger to letting the doctor’s take a big chunk out for biopsy, we know through our bodies and our mouths abstractions that are hard to understand otherwise. If I can mete out the steps from mouth to body to soil to tree to big global catastrophe, maybe the everything-in-everything theory that Anaxagoras offers us not only makes sense in a cognitive way but in a visceral one as well. (Puns apologized for, but not regretted. Well, a little regretted.)
DWM: All this talk of Anaxagoras and Derrida may mislead potential readers, overlooking what I find equally compelling about your book: the humor, the silly asides, the basic optimism. Processed Meats doesn’t fail to acknowledge our difficult times—not just our pandemic nightmare but our toxic consumerism and the climate crisis that we’ve been avoiding for too long—but I found the book itself to be a bit of a lift, a buoyant and invigorating read.
So, tell me Nicole. Do you still have hope? Despite it all?
NW: What is wrong with me? Why do I read about the fires and the melting and the storms and the dislocation and still find hope? I am, as flawed as it is to be, an American. I’m full of optimism just as I am full of cheese. Optimism is dangerous. It’s often plain wrong. But when I look at the twenty-year old kid who invented a boat to pull plastic from the ocean and the water protectors from the Hopi and Navajo nations bringing attention to the rapidly declining aquifer and the local farmers and community-supported agriculture, all I can see is promise. It’s brighter than the bad news—not because it’s bigger. In fact, maybe because it’s smaller. I can relate to the person who grows heritage pigs and feeds them acorns from his hand and still manages to slaughter them and sell that pig to his local pork product purveyors because he spent so much time and energy with them. They had a good and industrious life. The acorns did too. The soil researchers who worry that at a certain temperature the forest becomes a bigger producer of carbon than a carbon sink look at layers of sand and at the nearly invisible microorganisms chowing down on the decaying leaves and I think, those microbes, if not those scientists, will figure something out. I’m Generation X. We aren’t supposed to believe in anything or have a lot of hope, but I think underlying all that biting realism, there’s a layer of “fine. We’ll get it done.” I believe we’ll get it together. And by we, again, I might mean the microorganisms more than the people, but still. Getting it together will be got.
Nicole Walker is the author of Processed Meat: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet and Sustainability: A Love Story and A Survival Guide for Life in the Ruins. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. Her work has been published in Orion, Boston Review, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Normal School and other places. She curated, with Rebecca Campbell, “7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone” for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, she is noted in multiple editions of Best American Essays. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Dinty W. Moore is editor-in-chief of Brevity and author of To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno.
Kenyon Review Short Nonfiction Contest
December 9, 2020 § 1 Comment
The Kenyon Review has announced its third annual 2021 Short Nonfiction Contest.
The contest is open to all writers who have not yet published a book of creative nonfiction. Submissions must be 1,200 words or fewer.
The Kenyon Review will publish the winning essays in the Mar/Apr 2022 issue, and the winning author will be awarded a scholarship to attend the 2021 Writers Workshop this summer.
Each entrant will receive a one-year subscription to the Kenyon Review which will start with the Mar/Apr 2021 issue. (Current subscribers will receive a one-year extension on their current subscription.)
Kiese Laymon Judges 2019 New Ohio Review Nonfiction Contest
April 12, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Madison Foltz and David Wanczyk,
We are thrilled to have award-winning memoirist Kiese Laymon as the judge of our 2019 New Ohio Review nonfiction contest. The deadline is April 15. The winner will receive $1000, and this year we are happy to announce that two dozen honorable mention pieces—spread across poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—will be published either in our print magazine or online at newohioreview.org. All entrants receive a one-year subscription.
In his frank, powerful new memoir, Heavy: An American Memoir, Laymon writes about his American experience, about pains both physical and cultural. And as the memoir’s title implies, much of the book deals with Laymon’s struggles with body image.
Martha Anne Toll writes in her review of Heavy for NPR, “Laymon intersperses stories of friends and girlfriends and teachers and books with a narrative about food—both its attraction and revulsion. His body is a character in this memoir, the body of a black man, objectified by the culture, threatened and threatening because of America’s long, ugly history of racial oppression.”
Laymon explores his childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, which was filled with violence, familial betrayal, and beatings, alongside his later expulsion from Millsaps College, a gambling addiction, his eventual graduation from Oberlin, and his battle against racism. Throughout his story, he also links his own writing and struggles to those of authors like Toni Cade Bambara and Richard Wright. Like their work, Heavy is intense, powerful, important. And it’s difficult to read at times. It’s not only the story of a black male body trying to find its place in America, but also the story of all the reasons why that place may never be found. Laymon, with a pulsing, melancholic, hurt-but-indomitable voice, highlights how personal demons and toxic behavior can form a maelstrom within us that can keep us from thriving. “The nation as it is currently constituted,” he writes, “has never dealt with a yesterday or tomorrow where we were radically honest, generous, and tender with each other.”
We are excited to work with Laymon because he is offering that kind of artistic reckoning.
A professor of creative writing and English at the University of Mississippi, Kiese Laymon has authored a full-length novel, Long Division, and a collection of essays titled How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. His reviews, essays, and stories have appeared in publications such as Vanity Fair, Oxford American, and LitHub, among others. His writing is characterized by razor-sharp observation and reverberant-colloquial eloquence that also exposes his deepest vulnerabilities. And Heavy is an example that pulls no punches.
Please submit your pulls-no-punches essay. Your radically honest memoir. Your generous, tender-funny hybrid form. Your unignorable short-short. Laymon, we think it’s fair to say, has been through plenty. We know he will be excited to see your story.
Madison Foltz is the New Ohio Review intern and David Wanczyk is editor of New Ohio Review.
On Polyester Maternity Dresses Posing as Essay Collections
October 18, 2018 § 4 Comments
It is easy to hate Amazon, but they do sell a lot of books for us, don’t they?
Well maybe not. DeWitt Henry, founding editor of Ploughshares literary magazine, waited expectantly for his latest book to show up on the popular, monopolistic bookseller’s pages only to surf through two nights ago to encounter a rather peculiar surprise. He writes about it here:
For weeks I’ve been anticipating my launch on Amazon for SWEET MARJORAM: NOTES AND ESSAYS. The release date was 10-15, and I kept checking obsessively, but only found my earlier title, SWEET DREAMS. The night of 10-16, I typed in the product search, and there it was at last!
I called my wife away from CNN: “Hey, look at this!”
But when we clicked for the order page what came up was a large pic of the cover alongside ordering information for “Keaac Womens Chiffon Print Sleeveless Irregular Hem A Line Top Dress,” a maternity dress from China, available in “Small=China X-Large: Length:25.59″ (65cm), Bust:42.52″ (108cm); Medium=China 2X-Large: Length:25.98″ (66cm), Bust:44.09″ (112cm);” and other sizes that seemed nothing like the essay collection I have worked on for years.
Meanwhile the “real” book is available from www.MadHat-Press.com and I hope happy readers will spread the word and even leave reviews on Amazon.
The William Bradley Prize for the Essay
January 8, 2018 § 2 Comments
The first annual William Bradley Prize for the Essay competition ends on March 15, 2018
The William Bradley Prize for The Essay is dedicated to the memory of essayist and scholar, William Bradley and intended to honor his legacy and his commitment to the essay form–its literary history, dynamic present, and promising future. In addition to being a nonfiction scholar, William wrote essays about academic life, pop culture, family, and illness; and with particular heart and grace about his own long-term battles with cancer.
William wrote of his battle with cancer and the love he had for his wife Emily in December 2016 here on the Brevity blog, and authored the flash essay “Julio at Large,” a beautiful mediation on freedom and “shitty coal mining towns,” for Brevity magazine in 2010.
He was a passionate advocate for social justice, a caring friend to many writers, and supporter of disenfranchised populations.
The Normal School: a Literary Magazine, for which William was a regular contributor over the years, is proud to publish the winning essay each year in their fall issue.
Please limit your submission to 6,000 words or less, and submissions should be previously unpublished in print or online. Double space your essay and use a 12 pt. text font and 1-1.25 inch margins.
The William Bradley Prize is generously supported financially by an anonymous group of writers known as The Maiden Aunts of Literature.
The entry fee is $5 and the Winning Essay will receive a $250 honorarium. All proceeds from the contest will go to support the William Bradley Reading Series at Heidelberg University, founded by William’s wife and collaborator, Emily Isaacson. Emily has graciously agreed to serve as the Inaugural Judge of the 2018 Prize.
Gretel Ehrlich to Judge River Teeth Book Prize
July 12, 2017 § 1 Comment
The fine folks at River Teeth have just announced that acclaimed nonfiction writer Gretel Ehrlich will judge our 2017 book contest.
Gretel Ehrlich’s books have been translated into six different languages. Among her many publications are the essay collections The Solace of Open Spaces (1985) and Islands, the Universe, Home (1991), her memoir, A Match to the Heart (1994), and several books based on her travels. Her awards include: National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities grant, a Whiting Foundation Award, and many others.
The contest winner will receive $1,000 and have his or her manuscript published by The University of New Mexico Press.
Submissions will be accepted until October 15, 2017. All contestants will receive a one-year subscription to River Teeth. For more information on entering please see Contest Guidelines.
The Essay: Brave, Engaged, Inventive
April 21, 2017 § 2 Comments
Redivider, the journal of new art and literature out of Emerson College, is accepting submissions for the 2017 Beacon Street Prize through the end of April. Redivider’s nonfiction editor, Paul Haney, recently interviewed this year’s nonfiction judge, Ned Stuckey-French, also known as “the most interesting man in the world, when it comes to discussing the essay.”
Stuckey-French touches on Montaigne, Bacon, Adorno, the lyric essay, Eula Biss, the 1980s essay renaissance, and his time spent living “a kind of double life as a janitor and undercover trade union organizer.”
Here’s an excerpt from the interview, but the smart thing to do would be to follow the link to read the whole thing:
Reading essays is kind of like going out to dinner in Manhattan or some other big city. There’s always a great family restaurant that introduces you to new décor and food and presentation and wine and service. In judging this contest I’m hoping for an unexpected dining experience.
I also like to think that my tastes are broad, democratic, and always expanding (though I’ve never been a big fan of anchovies). I like essays that use humor and research. I like essays that make me say, “Wow, I’ve felt that or sensed that, but never heard it put into words.” I like essays that are brave and engaged, essays that tackle big issues though they may go after those issues via a small, quiet, and personal opening. I like essays that are formally inventive but that don’t indulge in form for form’s sake, but use form instead to reveal something about a subject in such a way that when you’ve finished reading the essay, you think, “Of course, that’s the way to say that.” I like essays that are skeptical and unafraid of the contradictions of life. I like essays that recognize that history is sly and we don’t have the universe all figured out even as they try to figure things out. I like essays that describe the beauty of our world – be that beauty wild, natural and inhuman, or urban, constructed, and social.
Under the Gum Tree Annual CNF Contest to be Judged by Kwame Dawes
April 7, 2017 § Leave a comment
From the folks at Under the Gum Tree:
Under the Gum Tree invites you to submit today to our annual creative nonfiction contest, judged by Kwame Dawes. Dawes is the author of dozens of books of poetry, essays, fiction, and criticism. His most recent nonfiction work is the essay collection he edited, When the Rewards Can Be So Great: Essays on Writing & the Writing Life, and his essays have appeared in numerous journals including Bomb Magazine, The London Review of Books, Granta, Essence, World Literature Today, and Double Take Magazine. He is Editor of Prairie Schooner and teaches at the University of Nebraska and the Pacific MFA Program. He is Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival.
Contest submissions should respond to the theme of (dis)empowered (see full theme description at underthegumtree.com). Contest submissions are accepted March 30-June 30, 2017. Contest entries must be previously unpublished, submitted blind, and not exceed 5,000 words.
Winner and any honorable mention(s) will be announced in Fall 2017. One winner will receive a $500 cash prize, publication in our January 2018 issue, and a one-year subscription in 2018 to keep or gift. The winner also receives the option to guest-edit a section of a future issue of Under the Gum Tree; in this way, we desire to push the limits of our aesthetic and include more and more voices. Honorable mention(s) will be published and receive a one-year subscription to keep or gift, plus a mystery box of inspirational CNF goodies including books and UTGT schwag.