November 24, 2015 § 17 Comments
A guest post from Gabriela Frank:
How many times have I killed my mother? In reality, she died once, but if you count every essay and story of mine in which she appears, the woman has expired countless times at my hands.
In a recent workshop I was asked to share my obsessions, the topics I can’t stop writing about. My shallow confession was an addiction to travel writing—true enough, I’ve written a book about it—but that night as I lay daydreaming about my latest story, I realized that I am actually obsessed with the far-reaching effects of my mother’s death. She died of brain cancer when she was forty-five and I was sixteen. Since then, I’ve written obsessively about losing her—my journals a fire hose of raw emotion, my fiction and essays populated with quests for a sense of self—and mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters and friends, all dying of cancer.
Obsession is defined as the domination of one’s thoughts by a persistent idea; the mind experiences a rush of fulfillment whenever the object of obsession is conjured. Unlike addiction, obsession isn’t an escape into the same experience but a search for richer prizes—hidden artifacts that deepen and validate the mystery—clues, not conclusions, a delicate balance.
My mother was my best friend and the buffer between my father and me. After she died, my life escalated into a cycle of neglect and abuse. The night my dad punched a hole in the wall next to my head then begged me to lie to the nurse who cared for his broken hand, I knew I had to leave.
Twenty-five years later, my obsession with her death simmers below the surface. Tempered by time, my loss is no longer the raw anguish I felt at her passing, in 1990; instead, it’s a low hum, a sandbag of reality: my mother is dead, my world forever changed. That’s life, I reason, but a voice inside refuses to accept this.
While I never consciously adopted it as therapy, writing is how I instinctively examine the loss of my mother. As I’ve gotten older, my obsession has grown to include my mother’s inexplicable decision to remain married to my father, whom she attempted to leave several times prior to her death. Why didn’t she untether herself when she had the chance? And why, despite my befuddlement with her life choices, have I mirrored some of them?
Journals from my teens and twenties blaze with early attempts to wrestle with this—uncontrolled, unbalanced inquiry, grossly unfair to those named within. But over time, writing has been a saving alchemy, tempering my grief into malleable material, the stuff of humanity and empathy that enlivens and warms my characters, including me.
Obsession is a hunt for complexity, a drive to uncover clues that we’re positive exist behind doors we cannot yet access; finding the next portal is as much a goal as unlocking it. That is why my mother keeps turning up in my work; each doppelganger presents another locked door, another clue to puzzle over. She may appear as a woman with espresso-brown curls, an Italian with olive skin. She might be from Detroit or drive a maroon ’79 Pontiac Grand Prix. She might have a precocious daughter. She might be on the run from abuse. The only common link between these women is death.
It sounds cruel to kill them and their loved ones in my writing, but it isn’t mindless the way real death is. For instance, I can tell you why each character had to die—personal growth or karmic justice—necessary plot devices that drive stories. Isn’t that what I’m searching for when I draw my mother into my writing? Reasons to accept my loss—perhaps my teenage self needed to be taught self-reliance? Even today, I still need something to point to with certainty and say, This is why it’s okay my mother died and left me.
After my divorce, my obsession with her boiled over again. If I could make hard choices, like ending a dysfunctional marriage, why couldn’t she? My fixation on understanding why fueled a novel and several essays in which I punished her for not being strong enough to leave my father despite her ability to leave me. It felt cathartic to write the horrible things I could never say: that I was mad at her for abandoning me at sixteen, and for not being strong enough to leave a bad marriage. I wrote and wrote until the blood finally ebbed from my ink.
As I approach 45, the heat of my obsession has reduced to a simmer. I no longer write for revenge but to explore the severed link between my mother and me, drawing on fuzzy memories and family myths to reconstruct her in relation to who I’ve become. I am learning how to love her and her flaws in the same breath, to understand the social pressures she lived under, how women’s rights were different then than they are today. My obsession is a red thread that knits it all together: love and loss, past and present, fiction and nonfiction. The tiny fissures of my scarred heart extend into both worlds.
Beneath every plot, my mother remains. To disinter her would mean undoing a part of me that I can’t live without; you cannot separate the obsession from the writer. The same goes for my teenage self—the persistent interlocutor deep inside. She is why I’m drawn to write about the great and terrible moments upon which literature and life are based, the questions that cannot be solved. I’m not ready to not be obsessed—with my mother, with love, with loss, with living. Besides, that girl inside, the one who keeps asking why, she isn’t alone in the dark—she has my mother to look after her.
Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey. Her work appears in The Rumpus, Word Riot, Works of Fiction in Progress Journal, Bird’s Thumb and ARCADE. She lives and writes in Seattle.
November 23, 2015 § 2 Comments
Sarah Einstein’s much-anticipated Mot: A Memoir, winner of the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction, was released in September 2015. Many of you may remember Sarah from her days as Managing Editor of Brevity (and, in fact, she is still with us on special projects.) Recently, one of Brevity’s Assistant Editors, Penny Guisinger, sat down with Sarah for a long-distance conversation about the book, an intimate examination of her friendship with a homeless veteran who often suffered frightening delusions.
PG: The book opens with a scene in which you are going to meet Mot at the KOA. Was this the first opening scene you wrote? What made you decide to open with this?
SE: Oh, gosh, no. Not by a long shot. Like most beginning writers, I started out with a whole lot of backstory. I began the piece with what is now the second chapter and worked chronologically for a long time. It wasn’t until I started getting things down—and workshopping the things I’d written—that I realized we needed to start there. And, quite probably, the writing did need to start at the very beginning, because I needed to work my way toward that opening scene. But there is no reason to make the reader do that work, too.
PG: Can you talk about the significance of the quotes that begin each chapter?
SE: People figure out the world in different ways; some through religious practice, some through work, some through living in community. I figure the world out by reading, and during the writing of this book, I had a lot to figure out. The authors I turned to, then, needed to somehow be present in the book itself, and the epigraphs are an attempt to do that.
PG: It’s interesting that the book is clearly your memoir, yet it’s named after another character in the story. Can you talk about that decision? Did you ever consider not naming it Mot?
SE: I tried, briefly, to find a different title for the book because I had also published an abbreviated version of the first several chapters under an essay of the same name. But I never found anything else that I thought framed the piece in the right way. This is a memoir in which the central character really isn’t the narrative character, and I wanted to make that clear to the reader from the start. Using his name for the title was the only way I found to do that.
PG: I think one of the most interesting things to know about any piece of creative nonfiction is this: what didn’t you include? Were there threads to the story that felt important at the time or during early drafts that had to be removed in service to the book?
SE: I’m a pretty minimalist writer, and for me the process was more about adding to the skeleton narrative that I developed early on rather than taking away threads that ended up not going anywhere. In early drafts, there was almost nothing about my life away from Mot, because it took me a while to understand that the reader needed to place my friendship with him within the larger context of my life at the time. I was resistant to this, because my fear was that too much of that could turn this book into exactly what I didn’t want for it to be: the story of a white middle-aged, middle class woman who finds truth through her friendship with “the other.” And that really isn’t the story at all. I wanted the reader to see Mot, not me.
PG: CNF writers are often in the position of telling other peoples’ stories as we tell our own. How did your ex-husband feel about your portrayal of him and/or of your marriage to him? Was there any fallout that you had to manage?
SE: I doubt very much that he has, or will, read the book. While we were still married, and I was working on early drafts, he told me to write what I needed to write and not to worry about what he thought about the work. And I’ve taken him at his word. But we are each now happily married to other people, and really not in one another’s lives any longer.
I did try, though, to be fair. To own my own failings and to explore how we both were lousy at being married to one another. Which doesn’t make either of us lousy people. Just people who mistook a single shared passion as an adequate foundation for a marriage, which it is not.
PG: At what point in your relationship with Mot did you know you would write a book about the experience?
SE: So, the writing of the book started out as a kind of intellectual sleight of hand. If you tell people, “I’m going to go visit my friend Mot in his homelessness in the American West,” they get alarmed and do their best to talk you out of it. If you add the phrase, “…because I’m going to write a book about him,” though, then suddenly everyone claps you on the back and says that’s a fascinating idea. So, I started saying I would write the book very early on.
But, of course, saying you’re going to write a book and actually writing one are very different things. I took copious notes from the start (because I don’t like to lie, and I said I was going to write a book, so I needed to take notes), but in truth I never thought I’d actually finish the manuscript, much less manage to get it published. Writing a book seemed like a very big thing to me then, bigger than I believed myself capable of at the time. And so I don’t think I knew I was going to write a book until I had finished the first polished draft of it. Up until then, I was pretty sure I was just faking it, first to have a way to explain my travels with Mot to other people, and then to manage the loneliness of his leaving.
PG: One of the things I love so much about the book was this narrator’s unfolding awareness that her efforts to “save” Mot are actually efforts to save herself. It’s a requirement of the memoirist to have that duality of brain – to be able to record in-the-moment experience while also analyzing it from afar. Did you have that awareness as the events of the book unfolded? Or was uncovering that realization part of the writing process?
SE: One of my biggest struggles with this work was trying to make myself known to the reader on the page, because in many ways, I’m not a very self-reflective person. It’s a genuine personal failing of mine. People would ask, “Why are you doing this?” and for the longest time I couldn’t think of an answer beyond, “Because it’s interesting to me.” At the time of living these experiences, that seemed like enough to me, and I didn’t try to puzzle out a why.
But every early reader—and I was lucky, my early readers were excellent writers and pioneers in the genre, including people like Kevin Oderman and Brevity’s own Dinty W. Moore, so I knew enough to listen to them—kept insisting that I delve deeper. And it was only in later drafts, when I had some distance from the events, that I came to realize how much of my friendship with Mot was also about reclaiming parts of myself I’d lost to a lousy job, a failing marriage, and just the ennui of middle age. But, having said that, I also hope it doesn’t get lost that Mot was my friend because he was a generous, intelligent, entertaining person who cared for me as deeply as I cared for him, and that the point of the friendship was always and only the friendship itself. But I think that every significant relationship changes us in important ways, and in this case, I was lucky to have been changed for the better.
Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014), and numerous essays and short stories. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is also the Special Projects editor for Brevity and the prose editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection.
Penny Guisinger is the author of the book Postcards from Here, which will be released by Vine Leaves Press in February 2016. Her essay “Coming Out” was named a notable in 2015 Best American Essays. Other work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity, the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.
November 16, 2015 § 3 Comments
A guest post from Gila Lyons:
Two weekends back, about 500 women and gender non-conforming writers gathered at NYU’s campus for the second annual BinderCon, a conference whose stated purpose is to “empower women and gender non-conforming writers with the tools, connections, and strategies they need to advance their careers.”
The conference is an offshoot of Out of the Binders, a women’s writing collective of thousands of women formed in response to Mitt Romney’s gaffe during the 2012 presidential debates that he had “whole binders full of women,” referring to job applicants he’d received as Massachusetts governor. Panels and sessions ranged from Hot and Bothered: Exploring Sex/Desire in Creative Non-fiction and Fiction, to Pitching 101, to The Art of the Ghost: We Write Because They Can’t, and keynotes from Lizz Winstead, Jenn Pozner, Suki Kim, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and more.
Here’s my recap of one of the most inspiring and instructive panels, Hot and Bothered: Exploring Sex/Desire in Creative Non-fiction and Fiction, which explored writing about desire, sex and sexuality in nonfiction and fiction, focusing on the work of women of color and queer women, and paying special attention to writing beyond shame, fear, and dealing with the ramifications of being a sexually empowered woman who will receive violent threats, judgment, and nasty comments from those threatened by such a woman.
March opened by claiming, “If you’re not a white 25-year-old cis guy and you’re writing about sex, you’re transgressive.” She quoted Rebecca Walker who said, “Good therapy leads to good writing, and good writing leads to good therapy, and I can’t imagine doing one without the other.” She shared that the two best pieces of craft advice she’s ever received: “1) sit down and 2) write.” Also, read well, and read variously.
March encouraged women who want to write about sex and sexuality to develop a network of writers, “not supportive people who will say, well honey, this is causing you trouble, so stop doing that.” But other writers who will encourage you to keep going even when nasty comments come in, harsh judgments, or threats. “It’s normal to have fear of what you’re revealing about yourself,” she said. “Acknowledge that. And let’s kill that motherfucker shame. Every time I’ve shared things I’m most ashamed of, my life has become so much richer. People come forth and say ‘me too,’ or ‘I’ve never been able to tell this.’”
March discussed the ethics of writing about sexuality, especially when writing nonfiction and others and their privacy are involved. She recommends:
- be respectful and work it out with them ahead of time – what they’re comfortable with, if they want any edits made, if they want their identity concealed.
- Remember that other people can want their privacy, and that’s fine, but you have a right to tell your story.
And you should do it even though this world is not a hospitable place for it. “We get told our lives don’t matter,” she said, “pregnancy, equal pay, our sexual lives, they don’t matter. There’s a rise in women essayists right now and a corresponding rise in being told to shut up. Be love in the face of hate. Because what else is there to do?” She ended with a powerful quote from Muriel Rukeyser, “If one woman told the truth about her life the world would split open.” Let’s split it.
“Let your sex writing be aspirational. My characters have much more exciting sex lives than I do. You will be exploring, expanding, and healing your own love map by writing about sexuality, even if no one else sees it,” Quintero said. She recommended Exploring Your Sexual Self: A Guided Journal, by Joan Mazza, which offers writing prompts and exercises to put women in touch with their sexual truths and desires. Quintero led the audience through a quick writing prompt from the book, “If you could say three things about the nature of your personal sexuality and really be heard and accepted and understood, what would you say?”
Quintero advised writers to cultivate compassionate awareness of their own sexuality – including what excites, intrigues, repulses, and scares them – in order to increase ease and competence in writing sex scenes. She recommended the book, Sex and Money …Are Dirty, Aren’t They? by Cheri Huber to explore and work through thoughts and ideas about sex.
Finally, Quintero wanted attendees to remember that the rules of good craft apply to erotica. “Setting, conflict, character are even more important when your characters are having sex. No one person engages in sex the same way every time. Really great sex scenes tell you about something other than sex.” Her final book recommendation was Juicy Mangos: An Erotica Collection, edited by Michelle Herrera Mulligan, for the “tremendous characters” in its stories.
LaShonda Katrice Barnett:
Barnett described the protagonist of her novel, Jam on the Vine, as an African-American lesbian living during the Jim Crow era who is sexually free and fulfilled. She wanted to have a black heroine who did not have sexual violence done against her, as so many black heroines do, but to have her filled with passion and lust and love and see where that would take her. “I had to fight to keep a dildo scene in the end of the book,” Barnett said. “My editor said, ‘No one ends a literary novel with a sex scene,’ but I wanted to end on an up note, a celebratory vibe.” She fought for it so readers would get to know a different type of black woman who owns her own sexual prowess.
Barnett credited Zora Neale Hurston with the best masturbation scene she’d ever read, the one in Their Eyes Were Watching God – and with writing the first black sexually empowered female character that pursues what she wants with great passion. She urged writers, “Mine your sexual experiences in your writing so they become autobiographical ethnography – our stories have so much power they begin to speak for the whole of us. Shun shame. Claim your sexuality because it’s part of your humanity.”
Ashley C. Ford:
Ford described her work as addressing sex, gender, sexuality, and race, seeking to honor the entire spectrum of sexual experience, “which means they’re not all good, passionate and can be kind of funny.” She writes about budding sexuality, specifically for young women “who get such mixed messages about their bodies and sexuality in general as they’re growing up and having their bodies mature before they’re actually ready to engage in sexual activity. How do you explore that?” She continued, “Black girls’ bodies seem to mature faster than white bodies,” and Ford is interested in exploring in her work how adolescent black girls are treated by men.
She also talked about being bi-sexual and being in a relationship with a cis man, and how much she didn’t want her current relationship status to discount her queer identity. She referenced an essay she wrote for Buzzfeed, My Boyfriend And I Came Out To Each Other about her and her first boyfriend coming out to each other after dating for six years. She also talked about the ethical issues in privacy of loved ones, as she maintains a column, Disrupting Domesticity at The Toast about living with her boyfriend while dealing with her PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
Friedman asserted, “The most important sexual relationship you’ll have is one with yourself.” She spoke about her most recent book, What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety not as a self help book that communicates, “you’re broken and this book will fix you,” rather as a book that says, “you’re fine, the world is broken, here’s how you can have good sexuality in a broken world.”
She said that for her writing about sexuality inherently meant writing as a survivor of sexual assault, and when she did that “all the trolls came out.” She actually doesn’t like to call them trolls, “They’re abusers, harrassers, ‘trolls’ sounds harmless and funny, they’re not, they’re abusers,” she said. Friedman admitted that nasty comments and threats can get to her, “I do take to my bed,” she said. But then she gets up and continues to work for women’s sexual safety and freedom. “I’m Jewish,” she said, “and there’s a Jewish saying that really helps me – It’s not yours to complete the work but neither is it yours to desist from it. It’s important to be part of a community so you can tap in and tap out.” When you need to take a break for self-care, she explained, take a break, shut off your devices, and tap out. When you’re ready, return. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “We come here to decolonize the body and we end up talking about violence and fear,” Friedman noted. “Whatever makes it possible for you to keep doing the work, that’s what I recommend you do.”
Anna March’s essays and creative non-fiction have appeared in Modern Love in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Salon, The Rumpus, Tin House, PANK and numerous other publications. Her memoir, The Spectacular Remains, and novel, The Diary of Suzanne Frank, are forthcoming and she is at work on a collection of essays, Feminist Killjoy.
Ashley C. Ford is an essayist, editor and columnist whose work in Elle, PANK magazine, The Rumpus, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, and Literary Orphans addresses sexuality, gender and race.
Jaclyn Friedman is author or Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety. Friedman has been a guest on PBS News Hour, the BBC and numerous other radio and television shows, and her commentary has appeared in outlets including CNN, Time, The Washington Post, The Nation, Jezebel and The Huffington Post. She is a founder and the former Executive Director of Women, Action & the Media as well as a charter member of CounterQuo, a coalition dedicated to challenging the ways we respond to sexual violence.
Self-professed “Ivy League homegirl” Sofia Quintero is a writer, producer, activist, educator and speaker. Under the pen name Black Artemis, Sofia is the author of several hip-hop novels for adults including Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’ and Burn which are assigned in college courses across the nation. Under her real name she has published the chick –lit novel Divas Don’t Yield and her award-winning debut YA novel Efrain’s Secret and numerous short stories and novellas. Her latest novel is Show and Prove.
Novelist and playwright LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s debut novel, Jam on the Vine, was an Editor’s Choice pick at the Chicago Tribune and earned the Emerging Writers Award at the 2015 Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. She is also the editor of I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters On Their Craft and the story collection Callaloo. Twice-nominated for the 2015 Pushcart prize for her short fiction, Barnett holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.
Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, Ploughshares, Brevity, Tablet, and other publications. Links to published work can be found at www.gilalyons.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gilalyons
November 10, 2015 § 5 Comments
Jen Palmares Meadows recently returned from NonfictioNOW, held this year in Flagstaff, Arizona, and offers part two of her two-part report on the panel The View from the Slush Pile. You can READ Part One Here.
Field Notes from NonfictioNOW: The View from the Slush Pile, continued:
Please heed the following friendly advice when observing a panel of literary beasts.
- Wear unobtrusive clothing. Avoid offensive lotions or perfumes.
- Interact with panelists by moving head up and down when they speak.
- While live-tweeting is encouraged, you might missing some nuances of the panel, or risk panelists believing you are bored and texting your bff.
- Should panel open to questions, cautiously raise hand. When called upon, speak coherently and loudly.
- To avoid being trampled, devoured, or attacked by fellow observers, refrain from mansplaining. In the event of scorn, drop microphone immediately, and seek safety outside the conference room.
- If afterwards, you wish to speak with a panelist, adopt a non-threatening stance and patiently await your turn.
- For a reasonable price, consider purchasing a panelist’s book, and ask them to sign it. Hold the book in your outstretched hand with the cover clearly visibly.
- Request a panelist pose in your selfie at your own risk.
Panelist #3: Stephanie G’Schwind
Species: Non-writing Editor
Affiliation: Colorado Review (founded 1956, published continuously since 1977, publishes 3x a year, accepts nonfiction, fiction, and poetry)
Further Reading: Essay Daily: An artful placement of needle against album
Colorado Review accepts nonfiction year round. Of the 1500-2000 submissions it receives each year, about 500 are nonfiction.
The Slush Process: Colorado State MFA student slush pile readers read first. If a work receives the thumbs up from two readers, it gets forwarded to the editor. Sometimes, G’Schwind will go directly into the slush and read first.
Almost all of what Colorado Review publishes is unsolicited, about 80-90%. Of 35 published pieces, 3 might be solicited.
G’Schwind: “We are committed to publishing the work that comes through the slush pile. If you charge a fee, you have to be attentive to that. We don’t read cover letters until after reading the submission.”
Colorado Review never knows exactly what they might like. They once published, ‘The Big Pin,’ an essay on boys’ high school wrestling, a topic they didn’t expect to find interesting.
While the Colorado Review is a traditional sized magazine, they don’t publish exclusively traditional work. They often enjoy pieces that play with form. G’Schwind enjoys longer works, 20-25 pages long.
G’Schwind: “We host experiments.” Colorado Review is not looking for perfect work, but understands that essayists are attempting/trying something. Colorado Review observes a 90% rule. A work might be accepted if it is 90% there, and requires at most, two hours of revision.
ADVICE: Don’t get discouraged. Do the work. You have to read. Read lots of magazines. Read essays. Read nonfiction. Don’t get discouraged.
Panelist #4: Ander Monson
Species: Writer, Editor
Affiliations: DIAGRAM (published since 2000, is the second oldest literary journal still publishing, released 6x a year)
DIAGRAM is better known for their nonfiction, though they do not differentiate between genres. They also publish poetry, fiction, images, interactives and videos. DIAGRAM receives 200 essay submissions per year, of which they publish a dozen. 70% of its submissions are poetry, and almost all their readers are poets.
DIAGRAM does not charge for submissions, nor do they pay contributors, but they have a faster operation, and aim to reply to submissions within a month.
Monson: “I think cover letters are an opportunity for good or bad pageantry. I am prepared to like or not like your writing based on the cover letter. I’ve always loved cover letters—the bad ones are the best.”
Monson: “By the end of the page, I can reject or forward 70% of the time. You can tell if it’s going to be accepted. But we make sure a couple readers give each piece a read.”
Monson: “I look for forcefulness, particularly towards the end.”
Monson often personally responds to nonfiction submissions because he feels as a creative nonfiction writer, he is in a better position to offer advice on how to improve a work.
Monson: “It’s an honor to read it. Fire it out. Send us work.”
Advice: Don’t be too precious about the submission process. Participate in the ecosystem. Don’t carpet bomb journals. Build relationships with editors—those submissions will get read differently. Please do not send sea turtle essays.
Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Brevity, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Essay Daily, Memoir Journal, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories.
November 9, 2015 § 10 Comments
Jen Palmares Meadows recently returned from NonfictioNOW, held this year in Flagstaff, Arizona, and offers part one of her two-part report on the panel The View from the Slush Pile:
NonfictioNOW is an international conference devoted entirely to nonfiction. Compared to AWP, which last year boasted 12,000 attendees, NonfictioNOW is an intimate gathering of about 20 journals/presses, and 400 registered attendees, almost half of which are panelists—the difference being, I think, between visiting a zoo, and living amongst the animals.
In fact, attending NonfictioNOW is a lot like visiting Alaska. The concentration of literary wildlife in one location is astounding. Moments of awe and enchantment are swift and often. At NonfictioNOW, literary beasts can be seen freely grazing the conference hall, queuing up at the local watering hole, and foraging through the modest sized book fair. In the space of a few hours, you might observe Lee Martin picking through his complimentary buffet breakfast, or be surprised by the sudden appearance of Maggie Nelson. You remain alert for a glimpse of the elusive Roxane Gay, and might even respond to the uproarious high jinx of Brian Doyle, with hyena-like laughter. Editors of your favorite journals are within petting distance (don’t) and writers of your favorite essays are within selfie proximity (ask first).
We attend conferences like NonfictioNOW to observe literary beasts, not only to admire their talent and awe-inspiring intellect, but to learn from them. Thus, I spent three days, copiously taking notes and observing writers in one of their preferred habitats—the panel.
The following are my field notes from The View from the Slush Pile, with panelists: Hattie Fletcher (Managing Editor, Creative Nonfiction), Steve Church (Founding Editor, The Normal School), Stephanie G’Schwind (Editor, Colorado Review), and Ander Monson (Editor, DIAGRAM).
Panel: The View from the Slush Pile
Panelists: Hattie Fletcher, Steven Church, Stephanie G’Schwind, Ander Monson
Date/Time: 30 October 2015, 2:30-3:45
Location: Flagstaff, Arizona, High Country Conference Center, Humphrey’s Theater
Elevation: Approx. 7000 feet
Weather: Cloudy with gentle breeze, light snow atop San Francisco Peaks
Panelist #1: Hattie Fletcher
Species: Non-writing Managing Editor
Affiliation: Creative Nonfiction (21 year old magazine, publishes exclusively nonfiction, circulation 10,000)
Creative Nonfiction has changed over the years. In its inception, the journal looked more academic, in order to garner respect for the genre, from the academic community. Now, it is magazine sized with images. They host a regular CNF Twitter contest, and recently published a number of themed issues.
Creative Nonfiction receives over 5000 submissions a year, and accepts 1-2% of submissions.
Though Creative Nonfiction mostly publishes unsolicited work, they sometimes commission work that they need to speak to a themed issue.
Hattie Fletcher: “I rarely love a piece right away. I’m often thinking: What does it do with the theme? How does it work with the other pieces? Are people going to respond to it?”
Advice: When submitting, look into all publications, not just journals that publish exclusively creative nonfiction. There is a need for nonfiction submissions in many journals.
SIGHTING: Hattie Fletcher, in a feat of essay prowess, was crowned winner of the Halloween Nonfiction Wow game show competition.
Panelist #2: Steve Church
Species: Writer, Founding Editor, Nonfiction Editor
Affiliation: The Normal School (founded in 2007, publishes twice a year, 10-15 essays each issue, accepts nonfiction, fiction and poetry)
Often considered boundary challenging, quirky, or difficult to classify, The Normal School has published a transcript from an Ebay auction, a Google maps essay, and an entire essay composed of quotes by dead wrestlers. It also publishes traditional nonfiction.
For years its website was static, but recently the online magazine has become more dynamic, and has revived some archived works.
The Slush Process: Every submission gets at least 2-3 reads, and is ranked 1-4. Works ranked 1 or 2 get rejected. Anything 3 or 4 gets printed and placed into a blue folder to be read by Church.
The Normal School has been working diligently to include diversity, to find writers who aren’t getting published as much, like people of color and women.
The Normal School’s Associate Editor has what Church calls, a “Golden Ticket,” which means they can accept any one piece they want, no questions asked, to ensure a variety of tastes.
Church: “I’m a nonfiction fan boy, and 95% comes from the slush pile, but I’ll solicit writers I like.”
Advice: Look for magazines that promote their writers, magazines that end up in anthologies or mentioned as Best American Notables. That means the magazine made an effort to put that writing into an editor’s hands—not every publication does that.
Advice: Send submissions to magazines that seem cool. You never know what might happen. Church submitted an essay to fledgling journal, The Pedestrian, which folded after its second issue. His essay, “Auscultation,” went on to be included in Best American Essays 2011.
Read PART TWO featuring Stephanie G’Schwind of Colorado Review and Ander Monson of Diagram.
Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Brevity, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Essay Daily, Memoir Journal, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories.
November 5, 2015 § 19 Comments
Steven Church shares his remarks from the recent NonfictioNow Conference panel “Hydra-Headed Memoirs and Well-Connected Essays: Negotiating Your Book-Length Nonfiction Thing,” wherein he pondered aloud about hearing that his own “book-length nonfiction thing,” was too fragmented and associative and didn’t have unifying narrative line; and, second, about the challenges of an MFA program, where we focus on teaching student how to write really great essays and then, in their last year, expect them to submit an entire unified “book-length nonfiction thing.”
By Steven Church
Step 1: Learn to bake, from scratch, a couple of really good cupcakes—perfect little cakes that share the same basic form and thematic structure of a larger cake, the complete idea for which hasn’t actually formed completely in your head yet, but which exists just beneath the surface of your waking thoughts. Start small. If necessary, pay a lot of money to take some classes and spend 2-3 years studying how to make a really delicious cupcake from people who have made a lot of cupcakes. Learn to appreciate the cupcakes of others. Begin to develop a critical appreciation for “cupcakeness.” Teach Freshmen how to make bland, mostly flavorless cupcakes. Mention, in casual conversation at parties, that Montaigne was the father of cupcakes.
Step 2: Share your small successful cupcakes with other people. Enter them in cupcake contests and post pictures of them on social media. Test your cupcakes against public opinion, subject them to criticism, and make sure they hold up well under scrutiny. Don’t get too excited about the relative success of your cupcakes, but enjoy the feeling of acceptance, and ignore the few people who don’t like your cupcakes and keep working to perfect your recipe.
Step 3: Decide that, due to the relative success of your cupcakes, you’d like to make a whole cake, a real cake that a lot of people could eat, something popular with cake-lovers who can afford to buy an entire cake and do so, regularly–perhaps the kind of cake-lovers who host a popular TV show or write cake reviews and organize entire clubs dedicated to cake-loving. Commit to this idea of a whole cake and, when that idea terrifies you, reproduce those small, successful cupcakes again and again, editing out any mistakes and responding to the smallest criticisms from your audience. Make sure those cupcakes are absolutely fucking perfect. Then hide them away in small cabinets where nobody will eat them.
Step 4: Stay up late. Wake up early. Work on new recipes. Try different flavors. Look admiringly at your cupcakes. Stare at them. Move them around on a plate. Try unique arrangements of your tiny cakes. Stack them up, or spread them out randomly on the table. Put two different cupcakes next to each other, playing around with the juxtaposition of their flavors. Take the frosting from one cupcake and put it on another one. But eventually you’ll have to resist the urge to revise your cupcakes further. Ignore the nagging thought that, perhaps, you actually enjoy collections of cupcakes as much or more than whole cakes. Don’t listen to the voice in your head telling you that whole cakes are overrated. Put your cupcakes back in the container. Leave them there and focus, instead, on teaching other people how to make really great cupcakes.
Step 5: Wait a month. Or two. Or twelve. Or until it’s summer and you have some time to work on this idea of a cake you have. Then pick up your cupcakes again, peel off the wrappers, and hold them in your hands. Marvel at their completeness, their perfect melding of form and function, their manifestation of your refined idea of “cupcakeness.” Post something on Facebook about “cupcakeness.” Draw a picture of the larger, whole cake you want to make. Pay other people to talk to you about your idea for a cake. Attend conferences and panels where other cake-makers talk about their successful whole cakes. Taste other cakes that seem similar to the one you want to make, but not too much or you’ll just decide that your cake has already been made and what’s the fucking point anyway.
Step 6: Take all of your cupcakes—all the different flavors–and cram them together into a big pile of crumbly cake and frosting. Step back. Look at the mess you’ve made. Try not to weep. Instead, using your hands, try to mold the crumbled individual cupcakes into something that resembles a whole cake, but which will actually more closely resemble something from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Still, you must cling to the belief that the cupcakes are like clay and that you can just break them apart and re-shape them into a full-size cake, into something that other smart, professional cake-lovers can look at and say, “Yes. That is a cake,” so you keep squeezing the mess of cupcakes, pressing it into different forms and shapes; but nothing seems to work, and it keeps falling apart in your hands. Sometimes you think maybe you have enough material to make two whole cakes, so you try that for a while until your hands are sticky and everything is all mixed up. This doesn’t work either, but you keep doing it for a few months or a few years; and when other people ask what you’re working on, you tell them, “Oh, you know. Just this cake,” and when they ask what kind of cake, you say, “It’s kind of hard to describe.”
Step 7: Wash your hands, rinse, and repeat.
Steven Church is a force of nature. He is also a Founding Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School; and he teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.
November 4, 2015 § 22 Comments
By Lori Jakiela
Years ago when I was a young journalist, my editor put me on The Love Story beat. It’s easier to write about other people than yourself. Other people hold value. You know your own value is not much until you make it so. My job was to interview people about how they fell in love then churn out sentimental stories their friends and relatives could laminate and stick on their refrigerators.
“Happy crap,” my editor, a displaced New Yorker with owl glasses and a bowl cut, called it.
One pair of blind professional bowlers aside, most of the interviews I did were forgettable. Except one – a sweet old couple married over 50 years.
He was a World War II veteran. She stayed home, raised their kids and volunteered at the church bingo. These were Norman Rockwell’s people.
“Ad fodder,” my editor would say. “Schlocky copy.”
The couple invited me to their house. They were sweet and funny, open and kind. Their house was full of family photos and antiques, afghans and doilies. The man swore and his wife said, “Lord, this man.” They gave me tea. They gave me sugar cookies from a fancy tin. I went back and wrote the story. My editor ran a big picture of the two of them holding hands. I felt good about it.
The day the story ran, I got a call in the newsroom. It was the wife. She was screaming and I had to pull the phone back. I tried to figure out what I’d done to make her so angry. I’d printed that her husband swore? I didn’t know. She told me. I described their living room with the line, “In a room filled with family photos and dusty antiques.”
“I can’t go to church,” the woman screamed. “I can’t go to card club. You’ve ruined me.”
She said, “There is no dust in my house.”
I was 22 years old.
I didn’t know dust meant anything.
I tried to figure out how to run a correction, how to make the woman feel better. “There is no dust in Mrs. X’s house. The Times regrets the error.”
But there was dust.
But maybe I didn’t have to mention it.
“There’s you and me, and there are other people,” the poet Bei Dao said, a warning against both a writer’s self-indulgence and carelessness with other people’s stories. In her essay “What the Little Old Ladies Feel,” about how she came to write her memoir Fun Home, Alison Bechdel wrote, “No matter how responsible you try to be in writing about another person, there’s something inherently hostile in the act.” In that same essay, Bechdel refers to Faulkner’s famous line: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. … If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
I believe Bei Dao. I believe Bechdel and Faulkner. But how, as a writer who deals in true stories, should I navigate that?
Three memoirs in, I still don’t know.
In 2004, I started an adoption search. My daughter was born with a birth defect I’d been born with and I realized, with the startling clarity that comes with any emergency, that I had no medical history to offer my children.
I was also grieving. My mother died less than a year before, my father five years before that. Through my search, I was trying to get more than a medical history. I was trying to replace the parents I lost, trying to find a way around grief.
It’s as irrational as it sounds. I was navigating by desperation. I was navigating by hope.
I never got the medical history I hoped for. My dead parents stayed dead and the emptiness never changed. My experience with my birth mother was not a happy reunion. Still, I connected with members of my birth family and became close to one of my brothers.
There’s more to the story — which I detail in my third memoir Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe – but those facts are a start.
At the time we met, my brother knew I was a writer. He’d read my first book and then my second. He liked the books and passed them to friends and relatives as evidence of something. That I wasn’t a crackhead, maybe.
That books made me respectable, like a coffee table.
That a writer was someone who could be trusted.
“It wasn’t like you were just some nutball off the street,” he said.
Everyone is impressed that we write until we write about them.
“A man must live according to his nature,” Thoreau said.
To know your own true nature, to accept that, is a good and terrible thing. Serial killers do it I guess. So do writers.
When we first met over wings and beers, my brother said, “You have to promise me you won’t ever write about this,” and I said, “I can’t promise that, but I promise to give you a heads-up if I do.”
I knew even then I would write about it. I don’t think it would have been possible for me not to do so. I write when I’m confused, when I’d like the world to line up. I write to discover my place. I write to connect with other people who might be confused and lost like me.
In doing this I write about people I know.
Maybe at some point, drunk or sad, I promised my brother something else. I don’t remember it that way, but he does.
I finished the manuscript that became a book 10 years after my brother and I first met. It took me that long to find a shape for my story, to figure out what my adoption search might mean and why I hoped other people might care about it.
In 2014, after I’d gotten a contract for my book, I started talking with my brother about it.
“So there’s this book I’ve been working on,” I said. “I want you to read it. I think you need to read it.”
What I didn’t say was, “I want your blessing.”
What I didn’t say was, “Forgive me.”
His response, over and over, was the same.
He said he didn’t need to read it.
It was fine.
“Do what makes you you,” he said.
He said, “I’m okay with whatever.”
He said, “Go Steelers!” his way to get around talking about anything else.
I wanted to believe it would be that simple.
When my book came out in August, I gave my brother a copy and asked him again to read it. I asked for forgiveness, and this time I said it. There was, I knew, no taking anything back.
I didn’t want to take anything back.
I wanted my brother to understand that silence wasn’t an option. I wanted him to understand that I needed – for reasons I didn’t understand until I did — to write this book.
An adopted person is always someone else’s secret.
I say that in my memoir.
I was tired of secrets.
My brother didn’t understand.
He didn’t understand why I’d reveal secrets, even ones that, to me, weren’t secrets but facts I’d taken from my own redacted adoption records. Adoptees’ records are called Non-Identifying Reports.
He wanted to know why I wrote about things I wasn’t entitled to write about.
That’s the word he used, “entitled.”
What stories am I entitled to tell and what stories are off limits? What story do I, as a person without a legitimate history, have a right to tell?
Answer: all of it.
If there is dust in a house, does a writer mention the dust or not?
It depends on whether the dust matters and how much. It depends on what dust has to do with a bigger truth.
“Write one true sentence,” Hemingway said. “And then write another one.”
The truth always hurts someone.
“I thought I could write about my family without hurting anyone, but I was wrong,” Alison Bechdel wrote. “I probably will do it again.”
My brother didn’t understand why I’d reveal family secrets, but for me, the word family is loaded. If I were to draw a line around family, it would circle my husband, my children, my dead parents, and me.
When I say my friends are family, I believe that in spirit, but it’s not true.
When I say my brother is family, I believe that in spirit, but it’s not true. We were not raised together. We don’t have the same loyalties, the same secrets. His mother is not my mother. His mother wishes she would have aborted me, wishes I were not alive, her words, in message after message.
When my brother said, “We’re family,” there was a subtext of omerta.
Family means pact.
Family means, “We don’t talk about things.” Family means, “You don’t talk about things.”
To get in, I must shut up.
My brother’s family’s secrets must become my secrets, even secrets about me.
“Go Steelers,” my brother would say.
I hope family will never come to mean silence for me. But already when my son or daughter remembers something that doesn’t match my memory of it, I find myself correcting things.
“It wasn’t like that,” I say.
I say, “You’re remembering wrong.”
I wrote about other family members in my book, too – members of my adopted family, extended family, my father and mother, my husband and children. Each story, each moment I wrote I considered carefully in revision. I asked, “Do I need this?”
I take only what I need. This is what I believe so I can do what I do.
Did I need to mention dust in that love story years ago?
Did I need to tell the truth about my adoption story?
My brother and I haven’t spoken lately.
It’s something I’m learning to accept.
Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoirs Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books), Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette) and The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious (C&R Press), as well as the poetry collection Spot the Terrorist (Turning Point). Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Rumpus, Brevity and more. Her essays have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, and she received the 2015 City of Asylum Pittsburgh Prize, which sent her to Brussels, Belgium on a month-long writing residency. She has also received a Golden Quill Award from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, was a working-scholar at The Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and was the winner of the first-ever Pittsburgh Literary Death Match. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the writer Dave Newman, and their children. A former flight attendant and journalist, she teaches in the writing programs at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and Chatham University, and is a co-director of Chautauqua Institution’s Summer Writing Festival.