June 12, 2017 § 18 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
A couple of weeks ago, a piece by Jia Tolentino came out in The New Yorker called “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.” The title alone was enough to deluge social media feeds with writers stepping forward to defend the vitality of the personal essay in spite of the article’s assertions, or otherwise agreeing with Tolentino that the personal essay is, in fact, “dead.” The only problem is, the article isn’t actually about what we writers know as the personal essay at all, but rather a separate subgenre of nonfiction called the “confessional essay.” If we want to get even more specific, Tolentino’s article is talking specifically of the confessional essays typically printed in online “women’s” publications such as xoJane, Jezebel, Salon, and others. To compare the personal and the confessional is a common false equivalence, and a great underestimation of all that first-person nonfiction writing encompasses.
I can recall one of my first nonfiction professors drawing a line on the board, labeling its two ends “Self” and “World.” From there, we students worked to fill in the line with subgenres of nonfiction such as memoir, journalism, personal essay, critical essay, and so on. Every subgenre has a place on this spectrum, and the personal essay, I learned, falls squarely in the middle. Contrary to what many might believe, the personal essay is not a self-absorbed, naval-gazing reflection pool. Rather, the signature of the genre is its use of the self to comment on something larger than. The personal essay cannot, by nature, be strictly personal, as that would delve into “confessional” territory.
A confessional essay focuses exclusively on the self, usually in the form of an anecdote—“This one thing that happened to me this one time.” One convention of the genre is to explore taboo subjects (incest, rape, the female body) to grab reader attention, which some have likened to the writing equivalent of internet “clickbait.” I appreciate how Tolentino addresses the practice of publishing such sensitive material as potentially exploitative, writing that “so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return” except harassment from strangers. This is undoubtedly one of the hazards of the confessional genre, and one that editors who publish such stories should be aware of. I disagree, however, that this kind of essay holds no currency in a world where even the most innocuous statements on Facebook and Twitter can and are interpreted as in some way political.
While Tolentino remains critically neutral in her article, relying on quotes from those she interviewed to do most of the hard-hitting for her, it’s clear the current trend is to lambaste the confessional essay (again, under the false moniker “personal essay”) as narcissistic or “too personal.” But I’m here to remind you there’s really nothing wrong with writing like that. After all, writers like David Sedaris have built a career on essays that might be labeled “confessional” if he were a woman. And we love David Sedaris. So what’s the problem?
According to Tolentino: “Put simply, the personal is no longer political in the same way it was” before the election. Before Donald Trump. Historically, though, there’s always been a reason why the public thinks women should not be writing, and least of all about their own experiences, which as young girls we learn are somewhat trivial to the rest of the world. Movies centered around the lives of female protagonists are routinely dismissed as “chick flicks” and stories showcasing the ways women can be strong are dubbed exclusively “for girls” as though they have nothing to offer any other audience. Tolentino says herself that the writers of the confessional essay are almost exclusively female, so to say that the personal is no longer political seems like just a new way of telling women to shut up about themselves because there are more important things in the world to talk about.
If the nonfiction spectrum has taught me anything, it is this: The world is large. The self contains multitudes. Of course there is enough room on the internet for the personal and the political to be happening simultaneously. And during a time when women and immigrants and people of color can see the effects of the current administration in their day to day lives, to say otherwise is absurd.
But frustratingly, implicit in articles like Tolentino’s is the sense that men who write about their experiences are writers, while women who do the same are simply selfish. This is an idea women have been rallying against for a long time, as Claire Vaye Watkins wrote in “On Pandering” and Rebecca Solnit in “Men Explain Things To Me.” These essays remind us that for some, it will never be a good time for women to freely write and publish about their own lives without offending the current political or social climate. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the people who say that no one wants to hear about your lost tampon when there’s a crazy man in the oval office are the same people who wouldn’t want to hear about it anyway.
And though Tolentino claims to be among those who like the genre but “aren’t generally mourning its sudden disappearance,” she does admit to missing the prevalence of the confessional essay on the internet, writing that, personally, “I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason.” Of everything I’d read in Tolentino’s article, this gave me most pause. To make a value judgement about the existence of the confessional is to categorically dismiss all of the writing, and therefore all the writers, within the genre. In truth, the fact that women are driven to write essays like these is good reason enough.
Zoë Bossiere is an incoming Ph.D candidate at Ohio University where she will study creative nonfiction. Works and significant life events can be viewed at zoebossiere.com.
June 5, 2017 § 7 Comments
By Susan Bruns Rowe
The first time I met Brian Doyle I was at a writers’ conference pretending to be a writer. I chose his workshop because he had a kind smile, a well-groomed beard. Describe your first kiss! he shouted from the top of the class. He walked the aisles. He urged us to add details—saliva, braces, that awkward matter of the tongue. I sat paralyzed, eeked out three vomitable sentences. Time’s up, he said with glee. Then he asked us to share our work. Out loud. I kept my eyes glued to my paper, covering it like a grade-school spelling test. “I’d like to hear from someone who hasn’t shared yet,” he said standing inches away. Blood thrummed in my ears. My pulse was a fast staccato. Hands shot up. Not mine. There was no way.
The next time he gave a reading in my hometown. I sat with twenty other people in the basement of a musty Civilian Conservation Corps cabin reserved for “smaller” literary events. He took us on a quest for the perfect Pinot in a picturesque vineyard. You could see the sun in his eyes, how he savored each word in his mouth like wine. I was a college magazine editor by then, too, and he spent a morning with me, spouting ideas, advice, experience, while I scribbled. Six months later I sent him the issue to which I had given laborious birth. “Better,” he said. “Now concentrate on the writing . . . make it literary, make it leap off the page, make it tell a story on which a thousand others can stand.”
Every one of his emails was its own literary delight. He thought verbs should be “funky colorful unusual engines. Twist a noun into a verb.” Nouning he called it. He made no apologies for his self-described Herculean sentences (“I say happily go and read some Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Gibbon and Plutarch and see how the masters play with the pacing of a long passage.”) But his real art was to write from the heart. During my editor days, he ended every email by conferring blessings on my babies. I decided to send him a short piece I’d written about my youngest child. “Oh my gawd,” he emailed back. “That’s superb. That is honest with a capital H and O. Seems to me the pieces that are most tumultuously honest about the way joy and pain are identical twins are the pieces that come closest to catching the truth of the mysterious awful gift of it all, you know?”
I gave up editing to write. Things went downhill. I worked for six months on an essay I thought would be perfect for his magazine. I spent six days on the cover letter. He emailed back within an hour of receiving it. “Thanks,” he said. ” I don’t think it’s quite for us.” A year later, I sent him another piece, which he also rejected—this time with a hand-written note. I was making progress. About this time, I couldn’t open a magazine without Brian Doyle staring back at me. I borrowed a friend’s copies of The Christian Century. There was Brian Doyle. I ordered a single copy of Orion. There he was. He appeared in every other issue of The Sun. I used his proems, essays, and books in my writing classes, apologizing to students for yet one more example of writing from Brian Doyle. All of us longed to craft a single melodic sentence like Doyle did.
Last spring I interviewed him for an article about writers who approach writing like play. I’d had Brian in mind when I pitched it because he was always experimenting with form and language. He once wrote that the essay “is the most playful of forms, liable to hilarity and free association and startlement . . .” I asked him if he brought those qualities to his writing. “Hmm—I do think it’s true,” he said, “and immediately think of my sister saying I am congenitally wonder-addled because I got spectacles at age 7 and have never recovered from that wash of wonder. I suppose I am also sort of addicted to the salt and swing and song of the American language, which is a bruised dusty lewd brave vibrant language, and trammeling it carefully seems disrespectful to me, as long as I am clear. I never know where a story or an essay or a proem is going to end up, or even go, quite—I just start, and I have in mind that I want to write like people talk and think, in loose-limbed free piercing entertaining ways, and things go from there, sometimes utterly to the dogs.”
When the article came out, I’d heard about Brian’s illness. I sent him an email. I didn’t hear back. I wrote him a card telling him he was my writer hero, that he inspired me to write beyond my ability, that something happened in that workshop two decades ago that made me want to be a writer for real. I choked up, made mistakes, had to cross out words. “You can’t send him a card with cross-outs,” my husband chided. So I rewrote it. Without cross-outs. And it was much shorter. I left out all the stuff about heroes. I didn’t want to sound like a stalker or like maybe there wouldn’t be more rejection notes or articles in which I plumbed his writing genius. I’m not sure Brian remembered me from the hundreds, maybe thousands of other writers he helped over the years, but I don’t care about that. I wish, though, I’d sent him that card with the cross-outs and the mushy stuff about writer heroes. I wish I had.
Susan Bruns Rowe teaches memoir and creative nonfiction at The Cabin and The Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning in Boise, Idaho, and recently joined the editorial staff of Literary Mama. Her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Penny, and The American Oxonian. She has an MFA in creative writing from Boise State University.
May 29, 2017 § 20 Comments
By Jan Priddy
The sound crew working on a film is careful to record ambient sound—the faint traces of traffic and wind and birds or elevators and footsteps and air conditioners—the barely audible noises in the background of any location. Even a very quiet place is not silent. Later, if a line of dialogue must be rerecorded or the interruption of a plane roaring overhead corrected, layering in ambient sound is necessary to ensure continuity for the filmgoer. Ambient sound is the kind of stuff we notice only when it is missing.
Most of us have done it, at least in an early draft. We piece together our bits and pieces and want to call them finished before we fully understand the story we are telling. We do not know enough to tell the truth. Sometimes that is the result of inadequate research. However we define nonfiction, creativity should not come at the expense of accuracy. Superficial research leads to shallow prose. Authenticity is achieved through the subtle layering of ambient knowledge.
More than forty years ago, a friend at the University of Washington was taking a class on scientific illustration. Her first homework assignment was to illustrate a bird. Pamela, who already had a Biology degree, chose her model from a display in the Burke Museum on the NW corner of campus. The taxidermy grebe in a diorama of coastal waterfowl had the great advantage of holding perfectly still while she made preliminary sketches and recorded colors and feathers.
Her completed illustration was a beautiful and detailed but otherwise incorrect representation of the Western Grebe. As it turned out, no living grebe ever positioned itself in the upright manner she depicted. Her portrait was of taxidermy, not life. She thus perpetuated another’s error.
Getting things right often requires that the writer know much more than what fits on the page. Ask any great writer. Novelist Molly Gloss, known for her science fiction and historical novels, noted recently that she researches a thousand facts in order to locate the one telling detail that lends authenticity to a scene. Writers of nonfiction and poetry might do well to follow her example.
Too often details in poetry and nonfiction can be traced directly to Wikipedia, and the writing is both limited and flawed because the writer has failed to pursue the richness of fact beyond the abbreviated online version.
My father, a research librarian for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, taught me a lesson about research. My elementary teacher encouraged me to use the various encyclopedias in the local library to research a report. He insisted that encyclopedias were useful only as overviews leading to more reliable sources. He took me to the card catalogue of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. He taught me to use an index, to draw reasonable conclusions from diagrams and illustrations, even those with captions in Norwegian. I learned the difference between primary and secondary sources and that I must never under any circumstances rely on the accuracy of those writing outside their specialty. Find the facts, he said, and like a good scientist (or journalist), confirm my sources with more research.
Today such research is far easier. We have access to images and texts from all over the world, libraries and journalism, film and even people. The writer seeks truth, and superficial research leads to missteps. A recently published poem perpetuates several common misunderstandings concerning a nineteenth century event. The author’s only source was likely Wikipedia, and while the Wikipedia entry is mostly correct, the poet did not have enough ambient knowledge to avoid misrepresenting what is found on that page.
It is not enough to gather factoids and vocabulary, and not enough to find dates and names. If we hope to make meaningful and authentic observations, if our readers are to trust the stories we recount as true, then we must pursue truth beyond what seems most obvious. Our understanding must be encyclopedic, not limited to scanning a few inches of an encyclopedia.
For her next illustration, my friend Pamela went to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle where the live Emerald Tree Boa was a gorgeous green and neatly draped in a series of concentric loops across a branch. Its head rested precisely in the center like a goddess wearing a broad and elegant collar of its own body. Pamela drew sketches from various angles and went home to work on her illustration. Then she panicked: What if the position of that snake was a fluke? What if, as with the taxidermy grebe, she wasted days creating a flawed representation? Back to the zoo she went. On her second visit, both Emerald Tree Boas in the exhibit had arranged themselves across branches in that same symmetrical manner. Zoo personnel confirmed the pose was characteristic of the species.
It is tempting is to make our task easy, to trust immediate impressions, but there is no excuse for errors resulting from a failure to look past the first link on Google. We need to know more than what shows at first glance. We need knowledge of what is just behind and beside our subject and the faint trace of footstep and birdsong carried through the air. We need to earn our authority not only with well-chosen words but with truth.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as the Brevity blog, The MacGuffin, CALYX, Work Magazine, Raven Chronicles, The Humanist, North American Review, and anthologies about running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives and teaches in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon.
Emerald Tree Boa (Corallus caninus) at San Diego Zoo (side view) photo by Reino Baptista, free use available through Wiki Commons, 2015
May 15, 2017 § 10 Comments
By Jacob Little
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.
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.
May 3, 2017 § 8 Comments
Brevity 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.
May 1, 2017 § 177 Comments
By 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.
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.
April 21, 2017 § 1 Comment
Redivider, the journal of new art and literature out of Emerson College, is accepting submissions for the 2017 Beacon Street Prize through the end of April. Redivider’s nonfiction editor, Paul Haney, recently interviewed this year’s nonfiction judge, Ned Stuckey-French, also known as “the most interesting man in the world, when it comes to discussing the essay.”
Stuckey-French touches on Montaigne, Bacon, Adorno, the lyric essay, Eula Biss, the 1980s essay renaissance, and his time spent living “a kind of double life as a janitor and undercover trade union organizer.”
Here’s an excerpt from the interview, but the smart thing to do would be to follow the link to read the whole thing:
Reading essays is kind of like going out to dinner in Manhattan or some other big city. There’s always a great family restaurant that introduces you to new décor and food and presentation and wine and service. In judging this contest I’m hoping for an unexpected dining experience.
I also like to think that my tastes are broad, democratic, and always expanding (though I’ve never been a big fan of anchovies). I like essays that use humor and research. I like essays that make me say, “Wow, I’ve felt that or sensed that, but never heard it put into words.” I like essays that are brave and engaged, essays that tackle big issues though they may go after those issues via a small, quiet, and personal opening. I like essays that are formally inventive but that don’t indulge in form for form’s sake, but use form instead to reveal something about a subject in such a way that when you’ve finished reading the essay, you think, “Of course, that’s the way to say that.” I like essays that are skeptical and unafraid of the contradictions of life. I like essays that recognize that history is sly and we don’t have the universe all figured out even as they try to figure things out. I like essays that describe the beauty of our world – be that beauty wild, natural and inhuman, or urban, constructed, and social.