On Memoir and Bearing Witness, & Warhol’s Piss Art

March 24, 2021 § 19 Comments

By Marcia Aldrich

In the winter of 2013, in blizzard-like conditions, the Associated Writing Programs had their annual conference in Boston. I was on a panel, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones: Exploitation vs. Documentation in Creative Nonfiction,” which I viewed as ironic since Companion to An Untold Story, a memoir about the suicide of my friend, was being celebrated at the conference as well and could have been Exhibit A in the discussion. You’d think the topic would have been exhausted since memoir was far from an outlier in nonfiction, but you would be wrong. Each year panels assemble, and huge audiences gather to wring their collective hands over the unavoidable transgression that memoir embodies. My fellow panelists, B. J. Hollars, Roxane Gay, Bonnie Rough, and Ryan Van Meter, tried to patiently answer the audience’s questions, but let’s just say it: you can’t write a memoir without writing about other people, and some of those people won’t like being written about, they might feel betrayed—there’s no getting around that inconvenient fact. It isn’t as if you’re writing about a bunch of trees or a series of sunsets. It’s messy, this memoir business. Someone quoted Joan Didion: “Writers are always selling someone out.”

After my panel, I walked from the hotel to the Museum of Fine Art. It felt good to breathe in the chilly streets, to let go after being on point for hours and hours. At the museum I wandered until I found myself in front of Andy Warhol’s painting, hanging in the Art of the Americas Wing, called The Oxidation Painting, from a series Warhol made in the late 1970s referred to as the Piss Paintings. Its background is a copper-tinged rose, warm and ethereal against the museum’s blank wall, and then sprayed over that blush background are green splatters, in a faint, ghostly green, with darker islands pooled among the spray. The darker green reminds me of moss growing on flagstones, dank and vibrant. There’s a shimmering map like quality to the painting, a map to nowhere in particular.

Warhol worked on the series from 1977 to 1978 in his studio, the Factory, where his friends frequently stopped by. He spread the canvasses on the floor and applied the copper paint and, while it was still wet, invited friends to urinate on them. What we see in the stains and shifts in color is the urine oxidizing on the surface of the metallic paint. The paint reacted to the urine differently, depending on the composition of the urine, and the amount. Some changes were immediate, and some emerged over time. The mode of execution of these piss paintings were controversial. The aesthetic presented was achieved through the application of bodily fluid, a waste product, urine, and this bringing the body literally to bear on paint to create art has received a divided reaction.   

Companion was excruciating to write—it took me many years to realize the form it had to take.  A simple narrative would not have captured the obsessive struggle with the burden of my failure to act upon the suspicions about my friend’s plans. 

Companion was even more excruciating to talk about. It was painful to give readings, to do interviews, to field questions.  After one radio interview, the producer urged me to develop standard answers to questions I would be asked in order to protect myself. He said I was too raw, too real—I wouldn’t survive launching the book. 

I knew I would be asked why I hadn’t done more to stop Joel from killing himself. I knew this because I asked myself that question. But I was thrown by some of the aggressive questions I was asked that suggested memoirs were rotten at their core. An interviewer asked me if I wasn’t profiting from Joel’s death. While I had worried for years about whether Joel would approve of my writing about him since he had destroyed much of the documentation of his life, I had never considered my book as profiting from his death. The question suggested I was exploiting his death for my own gain. It had taken me years to write the thing, there were boxes of drafts I had painstakingly written and rejected. The struggle of writing was long lasting and visceral. If you added up all the hours that went into writing the book, I lost money. I did little to promote the book. It saddens me to think how poorly memoir is still understood, as a lesser art, as a defilement or transgression, as piss art.

Warhol, Andy, Oxidation Painting, 1978, urine on metallic pigment, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Walking home from the museum through the snow, I rehearsed some of the questions Joel’s suicide did not answer and how they haunt me still like the squiggles and lines created by the urine on Warhol’s piss art. Why did Joel not ask for his correspondence back if he didn’t want any record of his life to remain? It seemed to me he wanted to be remembered. He had been intent upon our having things from his life that would outlast him. Would he be angered or moved at my remembrance of him? The book was my struggle with these questions but not an answer.

It was a lucky convergence that I saw Warhol’s painting on the same day I was immersed in all things troubling about writing a memoir. I’m sure Warhol was changed by surviving being shot and in the aftermath he made a luminous painting, haunting in its glimmering squiggles and he used raw waste to do it. Urine. Isn’t that something we flush away—don’t want to see or think about? Just as we hide suicide, we don’t want to make public that someone was a suicide. It’s a transgression. But Warhol took that unwanted thing and used it to create a painting that transcends its materials, and he often used a friend’s urine to add an intimacy to the cold metallic paint.

Joel’s death messed me up and what emerged was Companion. I hoped it would transcend its materials, be something to memorize my friend’s life and mourn his death, and outlast us both. I return to Joan Didion’s assessment that writers are always selling someone out. Maybe we nod in agreement too easily. Sometimes writers do something else—they bear witness, they honor the complexity and contradictions of living, they give of themselves, the blood and the waste, they make piss art.
___

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton, and of Companion to an Untold Story, which won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, published by the University of Georgia Press (with teachers’ guide here), and has been the editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction.

It’s all in the Details: The Importance of Naming Things, Using Sensory Description, and Giving Specific Examples

March 17, 2021 § 8 Comments

By Shuly Xóchitl Cawood

Let’s say I want to tell you about my hometown. What if I told you it’s small and the downtown is on two streets and it has stores and places to eat? Are you getting a picture in your head? Probably not.

What if instead I told you the town’s name is Yellow Springs, and the downtown stretches across Xenia Avenue and Dayton Street, with a one-block street called Short Street? If you’re hungry, you can eat at Ye Olde Trail Tavern or the Wind’s Cafe or order at the deli counter at Current Cuisine (I love their Broccoli Moroccan Salad with peanuts and raisins) or head to the Sunrise Cafe (try their Super Veggie Scramble for brunch or their Thai Peanut Tofu for dinner—and take the wooden booth at the front that has a big window looking out on Xenia Avenue). For dessert, walk over to the Corner Cone and order a coconut-flavored soft-serve ice cream cone—vegan, even—at the window and sit outside on the patio. Want to shop? For groceries, Tom’s Market or Starflower Natural Foods. For clothes, Wildflower Boutique or Kismet. And for gifts, Asanda Imports, Urban Handmade, Yellow Springs Pottery, Dark Star Books & Comics or Epic Book Shop, or pick out an eeBoo jigsaw puzzle at the Yellow Springs Toy Company, or try on Birkenstocks and smell the incense at Earth Rose. What if I told you there are places to hike nearby? What if instead I named them—Glen Helen, just a few blocks from town, or Clifton Gorge?

Are you getting a sense of my town now?

Naming things can make a difference. Specifying. Providing details. If I said I grew up in a house in town, you might come up with some idea in your imagination of what that place looked like. But let me tell you more: I grew up in a house that is a remodeled barn, and it smells like cedar as soon as you walk in. Upstairs is a huge picture window that lets in the sky but also the summer sun, which beats into the room and heats it up. Downstairs stays cool, and in the dining room where there used to be carpet the color of wild rice, now the floor is tiled—blue and yellow and brown—and a set of French doors (honey-colored wood with big panes of beveled glass) leads from the dining room to the den. Even though the house is in town, when you step into the yard, what you hear is birdsong—of black-capped chickadees, cardinals, house finches. The yard has peppermint plants all along the fence, a maple tree canopying the center of the yard, blue spruces near the green shed, and circles of flowers for all seasons: purple crocuses, daffodils, coreopsis, autumn sedum, and a bunch of light-pink peonies in the far back.

What about now? Do you have at least a sense of the place I am trying to describe?

When writing our stories, details are key because our own lives are so vivid and clear to us—we  forget we need to help the reader experience it as we do. We need to take the reader with us. We need to recreate it on the page.

But being specific means more than just details and description and naming things. It also means giving examples of what we are trying to convey. I took a memoir class while I was writing my memoir, The Going and Goodbye, and the chapter I had turned in described someone I had dated: “He was soft-faced, thick-haired, broad-shouldered. His voice was deep and calm enough to steady me in its tone. Everything about him said he was substantial and sturdy, but his face could close unexpectedly, like a moon obscured by a rush of clouds plumed from cold temperatures.” I was trying to say he could become angry with me at times when I didn’t expect it. Can you give an example?, the teacher asked me. I sure could, as I had many examples, but it hadn’t occurred to me to put any of them into the chapter. I added this: “One time, he had arrived at a bicycle race frustrated and scowling because he had spent too long searching for me and our friends through the crowds, though I had told him we were standing by the water tower. When he asked if I had been watching for him and I could not say yes—though I knew that was the only right answer—he turned away and ignored me for the rest of the race but talked and laughed with everyone else.” Adding this example not only helped the reader understand the person about whom I was writing, but it also helped the reader understand me.

Now, I try to teach this to my students—give examples when it’s important, name things that will help give context to the reader, use sensory description to convey a sense of place and to build an emotional landscape. I don’t often have details and specifics in my first drafts—or at least, not enough—but in my second and third and subsequent drafts, I add them when they matter.

Details make a story come alive; details fill in the gaps; details do so much of the work if we just remember to let them.
___

Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of The Going and Goodbye: a memoir and the short story collection, A Small Thing to Want. Her latest book is a poetry collection, Trouble Can Be So Beautiful at the Beginning, winner of the Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry. Learn more at www.shulycawood.com.

Are Journals Memoir?

March 10, 2021 § 19 Comments

By Rasma Haidri

On Twitter yesterday I saw someone ask if he can call himself a memoirist because he keeps journals. No, I wanted to say, but didn’t. I resist engaging in social media conversations with strangers (although I’m told that is the point of social media). Nothing proves Goethe’s adage, “The spoken word comes not back,” better than Twitter where every utterance is carved in cyberstone. What if I changed my mind? What if I got trolled? Anyway, he wasn’t asking me. And besides, what do I know? 

I know that the word mémoire is French for memory and what we write in journals is not memory. It is the present preserved. We write in journals to explore, confess, deny, blame, examine, discuss. We write in journals so our thoughts are not—what’s the saying—lost to memory? Even when writing about something remembered, it is the present moment of remembering that we record in the journal. 

“This is not a book,” wrote the painter Paul Gauguin in the first line of his journal. Rightly so. A journal is private interior writing that we do for many reasons, none of which is public consumption. A memoir, on the other hand, is a book. We write them to be read by the world at large. Even an unread, unpublished memoir is a book rather than a journal, because it is a rendering, a creation, a work. Even published diaries, like those of Anaïs Nin, or Gauguin for that matter, are works someone has annotated and edited, transformed from journal to book. 

I am writing a memoir based on my mother’s private personal writings that she left unsorted in a box. That box has made me a memoirist. As memoirist I am a thief, stealing my mother’s private thoughts in order to imagine and construct her life. As memoirist I am a Dr. Frankenstein, awake at all hours frenziedly piecing dead fragments into a living whole. It is dark and bloody work. It is a scream in a frozen field where I unveil the body and behold a chimera. I think it’s my mother, but it’s me. The memoirist is not the writer of the journals. She is the one who exhumes them from a box, dissects the body, inspects the archeological find, and renders from the amalgated past a memoir.

All writing is hard work, and the memoirist’s work is among the hardest. Journaling, whether stuttered fragments or flowing spontaneous prose, is among the easiest as it doesn’t have to do anything or go anywhere or impress anyone. No one is going to read it. Journals are where we record the raw material for memoir. The journal narrates ideas, dreams and struggles in a context we are now far removed from. The journal’s narrator always predates who we think we are today.

Some years ago, my daughter told me that if the house burns, I must hurl my several dozen personal journals out the window. She wants to read them when I’m gone. I asked her what she thought she’d find there. She said, “A young woman I never knew.” I told her she can ask me anything now, no taboos. My mother allowed no personal questions, but I am determined to be the opposite. I told my daughter I will answer any question openly and honestly. She said, “I know.” She doesn’t ask. She has no questions. 

I wonder if I’m wrong about my mother not allowing personal questions. In my honest moments I must ask myself: is it possible I just didn’t pose any? Perhaps a mother must die before her daughter realizes that the person she knew is only part of the woman who was her mother. Only when the mother is gone do the questions the daughter never asked begin to form. They are the beginning of memoir writing.

I haven’t decided if I will leave my journals for my daughter. Is it enough that she knows what she knows? How will all that spontaneously written rubbish in my journals distort her understanding of me? I am a writer of poems and memoir. I render the stuff of my life into literary works and offer them to my daughter to read. She hasn’t gotten around to reading much. Not yet. And she has a plan to find me in my old journals.

I might die, as my mother did, before I have decided what I want to do with my boxes of personal writing. If they do end up in my daughter’s hands, she will discover that the work of understanding her mother’s journals is the work of memoir, which ultimately requires a reconciliation between what is written there and what is already known, and what is unknowable.

The memoirist depends on journals for answers to questions that were never answered or asked. Whether it is one’s own journal or someone else’s, the journal once written serves the same purpose: to illuminate the past and inform the present. That’s what I’ll tell the man on Twitter. If I find him. Journals don’t make you a memoirist. Your journey through them exploring the past will.
____

Rasma Haidri writes in a pinewood room on an island off the coast of Norway. She is the author of the poetry collection As If Anything Can Happen, and is at work on her MFA thesis, a memoir about her mother’s box. Visit her at www.rasma.org.

Lydia Fakundiny and the Art of the Essay

February 22, 2021 § 13 Comments

By Nicole Graev Lipson

After my son was born, I emailed my college writing teacher to share the news, eager to bring her along with me into this new life stage. Once, she’d been the notoriously intimidating professor whose name got passed around among Cornell’s English majors. But after three semesters in her classroom, over nearly two decades of emails that ebbed and flowed, through my own writing and teaching career, she’d become to me, simply, Lydia: mentor, voice of conscience, distant lighthouse. It’d been almost a year since our last contact, and this milestone had left me searching for my coordinates.

When I first met Lydia Fakundiny, my world had turned, without warning, to confusion. My parents’ marriage imploded, and they wouldn’t say why. I gained twenty pounds, watching my body swell into rolling hills. And then I lost forty, watching it shrink into skeletal valleys. I took secret gulps of cinnamon liqueur before leaving my room, certain I was unfit for the world without them. I didn’t know what was happening—just that the person I once was had disappeared.

In this state, I found myself in Lydia’s course The Art of the Essay, gathered at a table with eleven classmates. There was the notorious professor on the first day, seated before a stack of books. Her dark hair fell at an angle to her chin; her forehead was creased by years of thought. She didn’t smile—not quite. “I have no syllabus,” she said. “We’ll need to invent this path together.”

I’d always known the “essay” as something five paragraphs long that I wrote to prove to teachers what they wanted proven. Lydia showed us what an essay could be: the journey of the mind pushing, on paper, through uncertainty. She read to us from the masters—Baldwin, Woolf, Didion, Walker—and their words passing through her took on profound urgency. I listened closer than I’d known one could listen, hitching my way on these words to a place where things made sense.

Meaning, I learned, had an architecture. A sentence, depending how it was built, could crack the heart open like a cathedral door, or leave it numb as a concrete cell. Tentative, I wrote my first essay. Lydia returned my ten pages with two pages of typed comments, and I discovered the exhilaration of being taken seriously. I wrote another essay, and then another. A sliver of path opened. I saw I was in the middle of a living paragraph—one that I could write my way out of.

When fear stopped me from registering for her higher-level course, Lydia called demanding to know why I wasn’t on her roster. When my grandparents went missing at my graduation, she slipped off in her regalia to track down the campus police. When I told her I’d landed an interview at a New York City magazine, she gestured toward my gingham dress: “I hope,” she said, “that you won’t be wearing that.” I heard this not as judgment, but devotion.

Years later, I sat at seminar tables with my own English students, discussing essays I’d discussed with Lydia, assigning them her assignments. “Read it like it matters!” I urged them before they shared work aloud, just as she once urged me. Teach them like they matter, I told myself, advice she’d never actually uttered because she didn’t need to.

Late at night, I saw that my email to Lydia had bounced back. Maybe her address had changed? I Googled her. What appeared was impossible to absorb: her name, so familiar and indelible, hovering in bold letters above an obituary. Survived by her brothers. In lieu of flowers. My heart stumbled over the phrases.

I had missed her by one month. While I’d been sleeping, sorting mail, wandering the grocery aisles, she had been ill, and then dying, and then gone. There were no calls in the middle of the night, no relatives mobilizing in my kitchen, no guests to welcome to a shiva. There was just me on my couch, shame over my oblivion, grief over all I’d taken and never given back.

I thought of tracking down her brothers, or writing a testimonial on the funeral home’s comment wall. But neither of these felt right. Instead, my infant son blinking beside me, I wrote her one last email, thanking her for helping me understand, through the art of writing, the art of living. I pressed “send” and watched it disappear, a burst of pixels swirling away like dust.

My son’s fist was a curled seashell. His tiny chest rose and fell. I promised him a lifetime of mattering, in honor and memory of her.
___

Nicole Graev Lipson’s essays have appeared in River Teeth, Creative Nonfiction, The Hudson Review, Hippocampus, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she is working on a collection of essays about motherhood. She can be reached at www.nicolegraevlipson.com.

Speak Your Writing to Life

January 20, 2021 § Leave a comment

By David Perez

What might happen if you read your memoir aloud as if talking to a therapist, or your personal essay as if jogging on a treadmill? What might an unexpected whisper or pause bring to your novel or poem?

….

Reading aloud engages the senses, makes us think of rhythm, narrative flow, and stillness; connects us with how our words truly sound. Reading aloud slows us down. When we read in our minds we tend to zoom along, the brain processing much faster than the mouth can speak.

Reading aloud allows us to slow down and pay attention, which makes the practice a powerful proofreading tool. We find common grammatical errors, omitted words, sections that don’t quite say what we intended or that just don’t feel right.

Read David Perez’s full craft essay in the newest issue of Brevity

Asking the Question I Can’t Answer

January 11, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Rae Pagliarulo 

As the Associate Editor of an online nonfiction magazine, I manage the incoming flow of submissions, and work with a team of 12 smart, capable, and opinionated people to determine which pieces we should publish in the magazine. As we read submissions and try to make thoughtful choices, we come up against a seemingly simple question over and over again – why? When we’re reading submissions from the slush pile, we’re always thinking about the intersection of two critical factors – how skillfully a story is told, and how meaningful that story is, both to the narrator and the reader. Why, we wonder as we read submission after submission, was it important for the writer to tell this story? And why, we yearn to understand, will this matter to our readers? 

The factor of skill has been debated and quantified for years, and I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’ve got dozens of books on your shelf that painstakingly outline precisely how to do this well. There are a million ways to go about it, but we can look at our favorite writing – at the online essay that stole our attention last week, at the anthology of flash we return to over and over again – and see these ways at work. We pay money for workshops and degrees that will help us answer this question. We talk about it over email, in writing groups, at conferences. 

But that second critical success factor – the work of taking the story of what happened and making meaning of it – or said differently, making the reader understand not just what you are saying, but why you are saying it, is so elusive. It’s personal. It’s deeply intimate. And I’m not sure it can be taught, or explained, or diagrammed. 

I’m also fairly certain that in everything I’ve written recently, I haven’t been able to do it. 

What does that mean for me as an editor? According to the publishing power dynamics that be, I am in a position to decide what gets accepted by the magazine. I have a team of very thoughtful and diverse individuals who share their amazing insights with me on every single piece that gets submitted, but even with their voices in the mix, the act of choosing what stays and what goes is inherently subjective, and therefore, inherently imperfect. It’s the question I’m sure many editors ask themselves – Who am I to pass judgment? But I’ll add this qualifier – Who am I to pass judgment, especially when I have trouble doing the exact thing that I expect the writers I publish in the magazine to do well? 

Perhaps this conundrum is proof (and comforting proof, I hope) that the act of learning how to do a thing well never truly ends, and that the work of seeing, understanding, and recognizing a thing may not be inextricably connected to one’s ability to produce it. In this moment, am I struggling to write things I’m proud of, things that are worthy of a home in online magazines like the one I dedicate my time and effort to? Yes, I am. 

But that doesn’t mean I can’t figure it out, and more importantly, it doesn’t mean that i’m incapable of recognizing the elusive, personal, hard to illustrate why in the writing of others. I see it every single day in the slush pile, and I’m reminded that not only is the why attainable, it’s abundant. Meaning is everywhere, if you know where to look for it. And so many writers, whether by sheer universal accident or dogged practice, prove time and time again that they do. 

The slush pile is a place that reminds me that in so many cases, experience + distance = meaning.  We cannot report on the storm from inside of it, and perhaps that’s what’s at play as I struggle to make meaning in my own work. The year 2020 was its own unique struggle (though I am deeply fortunate to have been less affected than so many others), but inside of that flaming container, I’ve had personal difficulties and demons to grapple with. Grief, heartbreak, depression, anxiety. Things I yearn to make meaning of, but things that ultimately color and influence my ability to do so. They shorten my vision, cutting off the big picture and only allowing me to see the next few steps. They numb my creative fire, tamping it down into an ember that barely keeps me warm. 

The truth is, my work as an editor keeps that ember alive. It reminds me that every single day, people are writing and putting themselves out there. Every single day, we get more and more distance between us and the moments and incidents we long to talk about. Regardless of how my own writing continues to develop, I remain romanced, driven, and enchanted by the why, and my team and I make it our mission to elevate the voices of writers who answer it brilliantly.

And perhaps that’s the best way to deactivate the self doubt that has been plaguing me, the frustration I feel at not being able to answer the very question I ask of every submission I read. Perhaps I need to reframe the work I do as an editor, not as picking and choosing or passing judgment on what’s good, but as finding moments of meaning, moments that say something about what it means to be a person in this world, and to shine the biggest light I have access to directly on those moments. To be a steward, a celebrator, a champion. A human and writer and editor who, like everyone else, is in the constant process of learning how to not just recognize a thing, but to do it well. Why not? 
__
Rae Pagliarulo is the Associate Editor of Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living as a resource development consultant. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.

Fixing Bad Writing in Creative Nonfiction is Not Politically Correct, it’s Essential

January 4, 2021 § 19 Comments

By Kristin Gallagher

I recently completed a memoir writing workshop with a well-known urban writing center. During our multi-week class, we did the things writers do—we provided feedback on one another’s work and discussed the craft of writing.

As with people in real life, the characters that appeared in our drafts were complicated. They made mistakes. They failed at some endeavors and excelled at others. Some committed crimes, told lies, broke bonds with loved ones. They said terrible things. This is the raw material that makes for great stories.

How readers imagine the characters in a piece of writing is dependent on the writer’s portrayal and there is no writer who can separate completely his/her/their experience from the writing itself. How we as writers experience the world seeps into our work at the granular level. Sometimes, this means repeating messages that have been absorbed and internalized that are not healthy or accurate, including stereotypes based on race, sexuality, and gender. These are the overdone tropes that often appear in popular culture and mass media. Oftentimes, privilege prevents us from even realizing our level of participation in perpetuating these messages.

So what happens when we see our fellow writers falling back on these racist and sexist depictions to describe people in their works? We must provide the constructive critiques necessary, not because we believe it to be the politically correct thing to do, but because it is our responsibility to prompt one another to become better writers, not writers who rely on tired and lazy tropes when attempting to bring characters to life on the page.

In this workshop, we had discussions about the use of a pejorative to describe a person with an intellectual disability, how equating Blackness to evil is racist, and how to write about characters’ sexuality in ways that are not exploitative. On these occasions, it was not the character’s actions or words that were in question—many great works of nonfiction contain terrible characters who are based off of terrible people-—but rather, the focus was on the writer’s inability to write past blind spots to develop the characters. This type of feedback is important work that all writers in workshop must engage in so that we can all grow as storytellers by digging deeper and creating authentic characters that go beyond stereotypes.

After the class finished, the student receiving this feedback used the writing center’s email list to defend her language choices, most curiously by sending a photo of a person she wrote about, presumably to wave about like a flag to proclaim her innocence. We’ve all seen this by now: “I am excused from all racist language because I once ate dinner with a Black person.” “I am not homophobic because I have a gay cousin.” “I am not ableist even though I will continue to call people retarded when they make mistakes.” The student also let it be known that it was a pleasure working with some of us. Presumably excluded from that list were the people who pointed out the shortcomings in her writing.

The silence of the instructor implicitly legitimized this student’s actions. The inaction of the writing center-—a center that does not even have community guidelines to deal with this type of situation and that lacks diversity in its leadership and instructors—is a failure to the entire student body. Students who provide valid critiques that challenge their peers to become better writers must be protected from retaliation for such critiques. Otherwise, we have all failed.

It may feel that we are being asked to do more during a time when many of us do not feel we have more to give, but we are really only being called upon to do what writers in workshop have always been asked to do: to provide feedback to make the writing better. This includes having conversations about the ways in which we fail one another when we write stereotypical characters into our work.

On the business end, slapping a Black Lives Matter page up on a business website is not enough. Writing centers must exhibit a real commitment to eliminating the structural barriers that traditionally have excluded marginalized voices and must have clear community guidelines that are enforced and that do not tolerate bullies who attempt to silence those in the writing community who are doing the necessary work to stop this form of bad writing.
___

Kristin Gallagher is a Miami-based writer and the assistant managing editor of Gulf Stream. Her personal essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Qu, The Real Story, and Anti-Heroin Chic.

Powerfully Editing Your Next Draft

December 15, 2020 § 16 Comments

Staring at your not-final manuscript? Perhaps you rushed out a first draft in one glorious NaNoWriMo month. Perhaps you’ve slowly pecked away for 10 years. Either way, it’s a rush to finally type “the end” at the conclusion of a draft—you did it! You got there!

But what happens next? Your initial inspiration shines on the page, but you know it’s not “done-done.” How, exactly, does it become the next draft? Start with spellcheck? Get someone else to read it? And how will you know you’ve done all the work you can?

First drafts often spring from the impulsive heart, the burning need to tell what happened. Second—or any subsequent drafts—thrive with work plans.

Depending on how you enjoy writing, and how your best work gets done, your work plan might be a list of tasks or a method of proceeding.

Methodical revisers often start on page one, fixing sentences and scenes from beginning to end. Or they might work chapter by chapter, addressing dramatic arc, voice, theme and structure in each. Addressing multiple issues at once can save time, but it can be hard to see the story forest for the line-editing trees.

I swear by a list. The work plan I use (and recommend to many authors) lets me focus on the whole book, keeping the story in my head while tinkering with scenes and sentences.

1) Outline the story using my dramatic structure of choice. For fiction or action-based memoir, often a traditional 5-act structure. For an essay collection, character-driven literary fiction, or reflective memoir, perhaps a spiral from theme to theme and topic to topic. Business, self-help or a craft/how-to (like my forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book), benefit from a ladder structure showing how each subsequent chapter or concept builds on the previous, and each exercise or reflection asks the reader to branch out at that level.

2) Assess the outline. Are scenes in the right order? Do momentum and knowledge build? Does tension stay tight and reader understanding increase? Is the narrative pace too slow, or the number of things to learn too fast? Revise, moving chunks of text as needed and writing in placeholders for “missing” scenes or material.

3) Fill in any placeholders. Are some moments underwritten because the author got tired that day, or a scene evoked tough emotions? Is research needed to fill in a memory or plot gap?

4) Look at conflict. Does each scene or chapter include conflict between what someone wants and what they can get? Is the conflict between characters, between memoirist-as-narrator and memoirist-as-past-self, between narrator and self, narrator and society, or between the reader and their current beliefs/habits? If every scene includes conflict, where does the reader rest or absorb information? Revise scene by scene, increasing, decreasing or refocusing conflict as needed.

5) Revise scenes to get in late and get out early. Rather than parking the car and walking down the hall and entering the office and sitting down and greeting the boss, open with “You’re fired,” or better yet, standing by the car with a box of desk stuff. Edit scenes to close at or immediately after the moment of impact, with only the reflection needed to convey emotion. Even in “slower” or voice-driven books, make sure the reader’s time is spent loving a character, learning new information, enjoying a beautiful/fascinating/terrifying scene or drawing a powerful conclusion. Edit out filler.

6) Revise most scenes to start and end with a strong action, image or emotional moment. Strong scene/chapter openings and closings create pace. In more leisurely books, that’s where the reader has a moment to add their own thoughts to what you’re about to show them, or slows down to absorb the impact of what they’ve read. In faster books, these moments pull the reader forward with your narrative.

7) Refine the narrative and character voices. For each character, read only their dialogue and narrative. Does it sound like them and not anyone else? If all the dialogue tags vanished, would it still be pretty clear who’s talking? For nonfiction, is author voice clearly and specifically in the narrative? For fiction, does the narrative have a clear point of view?

8) Print the whole manuscript and make additional edits and notes on paper. Use scissors and tape to move anything that still needs to be moved.

Next, my favorite editing technique of all:

9) Instead of editing the existing file, retype the entire manuscript, plus any new edits, into a new file.

When I suggest retyping, writers look at me like I’m asking them to dance naked through the mall with flowers and tambourines. But this technique is powerful. Rewriting gives flow. Your authorial voice can more fully develop, like that great party anecdote you tell. The more you retell the whole thing, the better your timing and delivery get. You may also feel physical resistance at lovingly crafted passages…that don’t belong in this book after all. Plus, we are always the person most interested in our work. If it’s too boring to retype it, it’s too boring for anybody else to read.

This may not be your best work plan, and that’s OK! It’s time-consuming, and if you’re in a hurry, you might prefer something like this One-Pass Revision from Holly Lisle, which covers basically the same steps but with terrifying/awesome speed. The above plan also doesn’t address theme, opening hook, character objective, and other elements you’ll want to revise. But it will get you started, and having a specific, written plan can sustain you through writing days that feel like “work.”

If you try it, let me know how it goes (or if you need a cheer!). Nudity and tambourines optional.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Need more direction on your next draft? Join Allison’s Wednesday webinar all about Second Drafts, including theme, voice, hook and much, much more. More info/sign up here! (recording available if you register but can’t make it live).

Your Mother is a Real Character

December 2, 2020 § 8 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

It is easy in memoir – too easy – to just insert the word ‘mother’ and imagine your readers know exactly what you mean. You, the writer, have such a vivid set of associations with those six letters – m-o-t-h-e-r – that as you write, and as you revise, the woman who raised you (and perhaps vexed you) is alive and breathing, walking across the page.

For you.

But not for us. 

If you are going to write about Mom, you need to treat her like a character, present her in all of her complexity. You need to paint us a picture of your mother vivid enough that she will intrigue us throughout, just as a novelist would when creating a person out of pure imagination. Though the people we write about in our memoirs are very real, they still must function as characters on the page, because we – your readers – have never met these people.  

And by picture, I don’t mean a static description: hair, clothes, weight, age.

To better understand, think of what transpires when you meet someone, in real life. You may form an instant impression, based on clothing, physical characteristics, maybe even a “gut reaction,” but what you do next is watch and wait. “Let’s see how they act,” you think to yourself. “Give it a little while and we’ll see what sort of person they really are.”

This basic human instinct to form conclusions based on “what you see with your own eyes,” on your judgement of a person’s character, functions no differently in writing. When a reader encounters a new person on the page – and this is true whether this character is fictional or a real person captured in nonfiction – the reader (perhaps unconsciously) thinks. “Let’s see how this person acts. Then I’ll make up my mind what kind of person she is.”

Even your mother. Just because you love her, or are irked at her, or understand her, or find her endlessly puzzling, you can’t assume we as readers feel any of this. And you can’t just tell us what to feel or think about her. We’ll hear you, but we won’t be convinced.

You need to show us how she walks, how she talks, how her eyes squinch when she is confused, what she says, what she fails to say, how she folds and unfolds a tea towel when she is upset, and most importantly, how she treats others around her.

Then we will believe.

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I’ll be teaching a webinar – They Walk! They Talk! Secrets to Writing Engaging Characters and Vivid Dialogue – next week for Creative Nonfiction, using examples from Cheryl Strayed, Kiese Laymon, and Kathryn Harrison, to further examine the nuts and bolts craft elements that allow “real people” to become living, breathing characters in a memoir or essay.

We will also explore the importance of compassion when writing about others, especially family members who may not always have acted well.

Finally, we’ll examine dialogue as a tool for creating lively and believable characters, and consider the challenges of capturing how “real people” talk.

This webinar is for writers at any level, at the beginning of a project or in the revision process. Prompts and brief writing exercises will be included.

Here are the facts:

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020 / 2 pm – 3:15 pm ET

$15 / Advance registration required.

Hope to see you there.

The Best of Brevity Now Available & Two Readings This Week

November 16, 2020 § Leave a comment

This week, The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction begins shipping from warehouses across the country (and becomes available at your local independent bookstore through curbside service or distanced browsing.) We are excited about early praise for the book, grateful to everyone who pre-ordered, and thrilled to hear from those of you who plan to give the book a test run in your writing classes next semester.

We also have two launch events this week, our West Coast Launch in Los Angeles and our East Coast Launch on the Three Rivers Coastline of Pittsburgh. We hope you will join us to celebrate!

Here are the particulars:

SKYLIGHT BOOKS, Los Angeles, Wednesday Nov. 18th at 6:30 pm PST (9:30 pm EST)

Best of Brevity co-editors Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore will be joined by authors Daisy Hernández, Nicole Walker, and Ira Sukrungruang. Following a reading of three brief (of course) essays from the anthology, there will be lively discussion about the flash nonfiction form and tips for those wanting to write, publish, and teach flash nonfiction. An audience Q&A will follow. You can pre-register here: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/skylit-best-of-brevity/register

WHITE WHALE BOOKSTORE, Pittsburgh, Thursday Nov. 19th at 7 pm EST

At this East Coast event, Zoë and Dinty will be joined by authors Julie Hakim Azzam, Lori Jakiela, and Deesha Philyaw. Following a reading of their three brief essays from the anthology, there will be lively discussion about the flash nonfiction form and tips for those wanting to write, publish, and teach flash nonfiction. An audience Q&A will follow. Preregister for the event here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/east-coast-launch-for-the-best-of-brevity-registration-127005140795

And here’s more on the book:

Featuring examples of nonfiction forms such as memoir, narrative, lyric, braided, hermit crab, and hybrid, The Best of Brevity brings you 84 of the best-loved and most memorable reader favorites from the journal, collected in print for the first time. Compressed to their essence, these essays glint with drama, grief, love, and anger, as well as innumerable other lived intensities, resulting in an anthology that is as varied as it is unforgettable, leaving the reader transformed.

With contributions from Jenny Boully, Brian Doyle, Roxane Gay, Daisy Hernández, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, Patricia Park, Kristen Radtke, Diane Seuss, Abigail Thomas, Jia Tolentino, and many more. 
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“The Best of Brevity feels like the condensed energy of a coiled spring. A vibrant collection, dynamic in its exploration and celebration of the flash form.”

                         -Karen Babine, author of All the Wild Hungers    
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