Nonfiction as Autopsy: In Defense of Self-Interest

May 15, 2017 § 9 Comments

By Jacob Littlezz Yellowstone

I have several friends from various parts of the literary world who joke (with varying degrees of sincerity) about how nonfiction writers are “narcissists” or “navel-gazers” or even “cheaters” (announcing before you tell a story that it is true ratchets up the emotional investment and is a good way to disguise weak material or poor craft—or so a friend once told me). Aside from the numerous problems with these assertions, the charge of “self-involved” seems particularly hard to shake. How to explain a twenty-page story with oneself as the main character? Or even worse(!), a full-length book? (A beloved former poetry professor used to call them ME-moirs)

The obvious counter is to point out the hypocrisy of the assertion. What short story, novel, or poem has ever been anything other than the author exploring their own obsessions? The material may be different, but the self is present in all writing (and all art, by extension). We funnel our experiences and beliefs into our work.

But this is probably little more than a dodge. There is a difference between what drives and compels us to make art, and the content of the art itself. Why do we often choose ourselves for material, as if we are the most interesting or important subjects to consider? If you have one biographical story then fine, but why keep going back to that particular well?

It helps me to think of writing nonfiction as performing a live, theatrical self-autopsy. One might similarly point out why wouldn’t you perform the autopsy on someone else? Why is your body so interesting? And I’d answer the same way I do when explaining why I write nonfiction; “I have no moral or intellectual authority over someone else’s body. With my body, I may do as I choose. I know it better than I will ever know someone else’s. When I am the one with the scalpel, I may tell you what each cut has done to my body, what it feels like. I can point out each scar and attempt to tell you its origin.”

So we have ethical and factual authority over ourselves as material. We can speak to our own authenticity and accuracy, according to our actual experience. But why is this important? Why does it matter if you’re simply telling an audience about your—a single human’s—experience of being alive? Why should anyone else care at all?

For some reason, when talking about the self-dissection that occurs in nonfiction, we sometimes talk about it as if we are dissembling a machine in order to learn more about the machine itself; writing about the self is not merely a way to understand the self. That’s a part of it, for sure: “Jacob Little reporting from the field: I’m a human and it feels like this.” But when we are tempted to think this way, we should remind ourselves to look less at the frog’s formaldehyde-soaked intestines and more at what those intestines reveal about the world outside of the frog.

After all, long before humanity had begun the long, dirty work of mapping our bodies’ various humors and machinery, Babylonians practiced autopsies on animals. They did not do this to learn more about a crow’s intestines or a cat’s liver. Despite whatever its ransacked and inventoried appearance might suggest, the animal itself was never the thing revealed. Instead, the Babylonians believed that examining the innards of animals was a way of communicating with the gods. In humanity’s earliest days, pulling apart the bodies of animals allowed us to see into the future, to understand a purpose to our otherwise senseless, chaotic lives.

And so, when we’re pulling ourselves apart on a stage for readers, we aren’t just staring at our disembodied pancreas, trying to work it out for our own sake. Instead, we are holding up the organ to ask everyone in the room “do you recognize this?” and “what the fuck is this for?” and “what does this pancreas say about the mind of God?” If you rip apart a pocket watch, a laptop, a couch from IKEA, a human body, you will learn a great deal about the thing itself, but also about how things like these tend to work.

Good nonfiction—like all good story writing—extrapolates, tries to make sense of chaos, looks for similarities and signs and portents even in a bowl of Wendy’s chili. This isn’t, of course, accurate. At least, not any more than examining a bird’s entrails for messages from God. But we’re in the stone ages here. Our communication is hopeless at explaining our bodies, concerns, and experiences, woefully inadequate to engage our intellect, emotion, or consciousness on the level we are capable of. The best pieces of writing advertise their own failure to the reader, reminding us that story is artifice, that this autopsy is being recorded—and what’s worse, the doctor knows it. This acknowledgement is a cause for lament as well as celebration.

This lack of real connection leaves me, personally, feeling severed, separated. Every body outside my own must be a foreign object. There can be no pretense at comprehending someone else’s thoughts, motives, or desires, especially when I know so little of my own. And so, when I write about myself, it is not because I’m obsessed with understanding myself, it’s because I’m obsessed with understanding the rest of you. I see in myself some of the same organs you have, and am compelled to examine what’s inside of me for even miniscule, imperfect implications about the depths contained within all of you.
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Jacob Little is the Managing Editor of Brevity and a PhD candidate at Ohio University. You can find his poetry and nonfiction in DIAGRAM, Split Lip Magazine, Gigantic Sequins, and Yemassee. He’s been radioactive since 1733. You can follow him at @little_jaycup and jacoblittle.net.

 

Revision: Here’s the Chance to Get It Right

May 3, 2017 § 7 Comments

9780399578809Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore is featured this week on Signature-Reads.com, insisting that revision is the most joyful part of writing. His craft piece is excerpted from his new book, The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir, which came out just yesterday.

Here’s an excerpt:

The blank page is a frightening void. An early draft, however, filled with words – all pointing in the right direction, but in need of some tender loving care – can be exhilarating. Words are like clay: you can push them around and make all manner of shapes with them. And clay reminds us of childhood. And childhood reminds us of the time when we were the most playful, most creative, and least haunted by voices telling us we can’t do things well enough.

In other words, you can approach revision with your head low and your shoulders tensed, thinking, “Boy my sentences are so sloppy and wordy, and everything seems slow. All in all, I’m a pathetic failure.”

Or you can approach revision thinking, “Hey, here’s my chance to get it right. Let’s play around.”

Too many areas of life don’t afford you a second chance, but writing does, and you should see that as a good thing.

And here’s a link to the full Signature piece, though Dinty would like everyone to know that he had nothing to do with choosing the accompanying illustration.

 

Advice to College Graduates Contemplating the Writing Life

May 1, 2017 § 21 Comments

sandramillerBy Sandra A. Miller

Make lattes at the bookstore café or bag groceries at the Stop ‘n’ Shop. Give the job some muscle and love, but not every moment of your writing time. Or find a position that taps your talent in exchange for a sizable salary. Eat well. Drink well. Don’t think of this as a right or wrong choice, but you’ll soon enough learn what you hunger for.

Or, like me, pack a bag and move to Japan where you can write through the night in your lonely apartment with Hemingway novels scattered across a blonde straw floor. An eager student will teach you the word for rising sun, Asahi, which, in turn, you will whisper to your lover at dawn, the one who fills, then breaks, your heart, leaving you alone again with nothing but your notebook. Write! Write! Blur the ink with tears as you journey to the shores of Indonesia, where someone new will crawl into your arms, pull you to Europe and hold you at 3 A.M. in the muted pink light of the midnight sun, too transcendent for words, but you will try.

Years later, when you have loved enough, or simply had enough, then leave Europe and find your way home. Take any job, brew your own coffee, and write.

As A. Lee Martinez said, “Those who write are writers. Those who wait are waiters.”

You choose. But if it’s writing instead of waiting, listen for voices in your head until you hear them as clearly as your new beau—the swarthy Italian psychologist singing “Pinball Wizard” as he stir-fries onions in your dingy kitchen. Write about him. Write about the people you love, and the parents you have spent your whole life trying to love. Or make up characters and fall in love with them.

Waiting. Writing. You decide, until it’s no longer a choice and you are reaching for your laptop, as essential as your inhaler. Quiet yourself and live in words, but try not to hear those other voices, the ones that long to steer you to the path of should. Unlike the terrifying creative path that you are navigating—the one that requires a leap into the dark—the path of should starts in glistening sunshine then stealthily drags you into unmitigated blackness. Soon you are settled into your gray cubicle inside someone else’s dreams and your very own midnight, backtracking out of a life that doesn’t belong to you, and never did.

But, truthfully, I don’t know anything about this. No one can tell you how to be a writer. You have to find your way there with a map that you sketch yourself, one as singularly unique as your own fingerprints. You have to write your way there, taking time to travel, to sing, to kneel humbled before a blood red sunset over the Pacific or lost in a stand of pines that smell like Christmas, like disappointment, like the father you’ve been looking for your entire life, the reason why you write. You might spend time with old people who will show you how both slow and fast an hour can be, or play with children who will remind you how to fly. You might need to fight a bit, hate a bit, hurt and heal and empty a few buckets of tears into soggy tissues or onto your sister’s steady shoulder. But that is life and learning, grist for the literary mill, they say. And remember, there are always antidotes to pain, like the friend who drove five hours to be at your father’s graveside that day; your aunt who knit you a purple sweater; and the words of other writers like Neruda, that you must store in your heart for the day your mother dies: “Tonight I can write the saddest lines.”

But you have time. You are young. You have no idea how young you are, and maybe won’t until you are twice this age. Mid-life offers quite the vantage point for viewing the lengthening shadow in your wake and the path ahead, shrinking a little too fast toward twilight. And why not set up your life so when you’re standing on the brink of 50, you won’t look back and say, “If only….” or “I wish….” or “Why didn’t I?” You have time now. You really do. Unbelievable, but true.

So what do I wish someone had told me years ago when I left college?

I’m sorry to say that there is nothing anyone could have told me. But what I can say to you is this: Be still. Listen. Love well. And write.

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Sandra Miller‘s
 essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in over 100 publications including The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, Spirituality and Health, and Glamour Magazine which produced a short film, “Wait,” starring Kerry Washington, based on one of her personal essays. Miller teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

The Essay: Brave, Engaged, Inventive

April 21, 2017 § 1 Comment

ned-stuckey-french1-230x345Redivider, 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.

Here’s the link to the full interview.

Seeking Essays on How You Teach Brevity

April 14, 2017 § 1 Comment

antique schoolbook reader page schoolhouse graphicBrevity is celebrating its 20th Anniversary! As part of our celebration, we’d like to showcase the various ways the journal is used in classrooms and other workshop settings. Do you teach from Brevity? Send us a brief (but not necessarily Brevity brief) piece about how you use Brevity: a lesson plan, thoughts on a Brevity essay you most like to teach, reminiscences of student reactions to the work. We’ll be collecting these and publishing a selection on the Brevity blog in conjunction with our special anniversary issue, slated for early September.

Send your contributions by August 31, 2017, to brevityintheclassroom@gmail.com

Never Call Yourself a Writer, and Other Rules for Writing

April 12, 2017 § 37 Comments

shawna kenneyBy Shawna Kenney

First thought, best thought; revise, revise, revise. Write first thing in the morning when the mind is alert; write at night and never while sober. Do it alone, in an office with the door closed, surrounded by books; write in coffee shops, surrounded by stimulating characters and conversation. Use traditional quotation marks and capitalization Unless You Are a ‘Genius.’ Journal in longhand; always type fast. Sentences longer than three or four lines are unacceptable and tedious, unless you are William Faulkner, William Beckett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jamaica Kincaid, Virginia Woolf, John Updike, Charles Dickens, Gabriel García Márquez, David Foster Wallace or one of those other people who can get away with it. Short is good.

Write with an ideal reader in mind; fuck the audience. Never show anyone an early draft; find a workshop for feedback. Write to please everyone; quit workshop and hire an editor. Take classes to improve; don’t go to college—you’ll lose your voice. Don’t send work out until it’s ready; submit early and often—it’ll never be perfect. Find a guru. Trust yourself. Kill your darlings. Study the masters and steal their attributes, but never plagiarize—even from yourself.

Don’t write a memoir until you’re ninety; write a memoir while you’re young and events are still fresh; write many memoirs. Write about what’s eating you; eat while you write, or write on an empty stomach. When writing nonfiction, recreate scenes you don’t fully remember; only use facts and information that is verifiable. Show your family your work; never share what you’ve written with those you’ve written about—you are the ultimate authority on your life.

Get a big desk. Keep a notebook in your pocket. Write for two consecutive hours each day. Sneak writing in on 15-minute breaks. Take long naps. Get up early and write before everyone else is awake; stay up late and write when everyone is in bed. Write on napkins, grocery receipts, scrap paper, on your phone or computer, or only in a Moleskin.  Write in pen. Always write in pencil first. Special writing software makes you more organized and gets you published faster. Write to get paid. Never expect money for your writing. Value your skills and charge what you’re worth. People who write for money are hacks. People who make money writing are lucky. Say this writing mantra every day: I am my own mantra. Never call yourself a writer until someone else does. Feel free to call yourself a writer, as long as you are writing. Fiction is thinly-veiled memoir. Memoir is mostly fiction. Poetry is useless. Poets are crazy blessed saints. Deep down, we all want to be poets.

Make an outline, then tear up the map and feel your way through. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t get there. All art is a process of discovery. Write what you know. Write to figure out what you don’t know. Write for your dead mother, your sweet pup, your unborn baby, or the ancestors you never knew. Write for yourself. Don’t write unless you can write the right way. Just write.

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Shawna Kenney is the author of I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, editor of the anthology Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers  and co-author of the forthcoming Live at the Safari Club: A History of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Playboy, Ms., and Creative Nonfiction, among others.

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

April 6, 2017 § 8 Comments

2bwby Colin Hosten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on.

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

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

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

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

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

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