A Review of Daniel Menaker’s My Mistake

January 31, 2015 § 1 Comment

A guest review from Emilie Haertsch:

Z_mistakePerhaps it’s the ideal pairing of human characteristic and profession: the anxiety-ridden who becomes editor. In My Mistake, former New Yorker fiction editor and Random House’s executive editor-in-chief Daniel Menaker explores the life that led him to become one of the country’s most reputable editors. The book’s title is a sly reference to the editor’s plight, constantly combing for errors. Here an anxious mind comes in handy. Like Menaker, I work as a writer and editor and wrestle with anxiety. I, too, have found that the very fears that plague me evolve into superpowers when it comes to editing. The need to repeatedly review a draft for the tiniest error and the desire to bring a piece to perfection might not be healthy—or what some people might say is obsessive—in the end leads to better prose.

In some ways, Menaker credits his generalized anxiety disorder to his success at the New Yorker, where he began as a fact checker. “It’s no wonder that with Valium always on my person and the need to lose myself in something that would take my mind off this dread, I throw my energy into fact-checking so violently,” Menaker writes. Working furiously—he called himself a “demon Fact Checker”—calmed and focused him, and as a result of his efforts, he received in just a few years a sought-after promotion to copy editor.

His success at coping with his anxiety, aided by the many years of therapy, is revealed in his ability to now reflect on his life without editing out his “mistakes.” He looks upon them wryly and writes from the point of view of acceptance—mistakes and all. However, always the editor, he cannot refrain from pointing them out—often humorously. He writes of an incident involving formidable New Yorker editor Gardner Botsford at a party: “I go to remove what I think is a piece of thread from Mr. Botsford’s lapel. My mistake. I’m right—it is thread, red thread—but somebody deflects my hand, thank God, and tells me that that thread is the insignia of France’s Legion of Honor.”

Menaker is surrounded by true characters, not just at the New Yorker, but elsewhere in his life. He sometimes writes as if he’s only as interesting as the list of people he’s known, which includes famous and unfamiliar individuals. Menaker pays tribute to his Uncle Enge (“rhymes with mange”), a Marxist square dance caller who owned a camp in Massachusetts; William Maxwell, his elegant mentor at the New Yorker; and his older brother Mike, a father figure who died tragically young during a routine surgery to fix an injury for which Menaker himself felt responsible. At times, like a Dickens protagonist, Menaker allows this supporting cast to command the reader’s attention. But Menaker is such a good editor—and writer—that the subtlety of his style characterizes him more beautifully than if he had simply focused on himself.

If Menaker had not spent decades at the New Yorker, and could not illuminate the inner workings of that fascinating office, his memoir would still resonate. Yes, it is riveting reading about William Shawn’s peculiarities as the New Yorker’s long-standing editor (he abhors the words “gadget” and “teddy”), or what Truman Capote sounds like on the phone (“just tell him Twuman called”), or the Random House decision to keep the author of Primary Colors anonymous. (Menaker advocated for this outcome.) But Menaker’s writing is most striking in his brief frankness about his struggles: his secret feeling throughout his editorial career that he is a fraud; his guilt about his brother’s death; and his struggles with mental health.

Menaker’s literary career is the way into his writing. The details he includes about the behind-the-scenes life of the publishing world are incredibly compelling—and funny. But Menaker’s thoughtful, subtle prose about his life, including the many mistakes for which prompted this title, is the true meat of the story. As a man in his later years and in remission from cancer, he reflects honestly about his complex history with critical distance. And despite the vivaciousness of the many characters—people and publications alike—who grace this book, Menaker is the one worth knowing.

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Emilie Haertsch works as a writer and editor in the Philadelphia region. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College, and her work has appeared on Huffington Post, Apiary, Raleigh Quarterly, and WBUR Public Radio.

 

On the Art and Craft of Literary Nonfiction

January 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

hairskirtOur newest issue of Brevity, released just last week, features four fresh craft essays, and we wanted to bring them to your attention.

If you haven’t visited our Craft section lately, you should.  We have a rich resource of craft pieces from past issues, plus the quartet of newcomers:

  • Brenda Miller writes on creating a “shared space” between reader and writer,
  • Nancy Geyer examines how Lydia Davis’ language wonderfully mimics her subject matter,
  • Dylan Landis argues for allowing the reader to construct the emotional response in fiction and memoir,
  • and Katlyn Stechschulte discusses useful (and not so useful) workshop critiques.

Drop on by.

How “Home Bodily Repair Kit” Came to be Written

January 27, 2015 § 2 Comments

CircuitMedic_201-2100__fmtFleda Brown discusses the story behind the story — the origins of her recent Brevity essay, “Home Bodily Repair Kit”:

I wrote “Home Bodily Repair Kit” before I found out I had cancer. Not that long ago, but still—a chasm between then and now. I wrote it back when I was steeped in the ordinary joy of aging, the wry pleasure of our shared experience, as women, of watching our bodies, our erstwhile temple of beauty, begin to collapse. I wrote it before I knew what real collapse was, and before I decided to let my hair go entirely gray.

Nonetheless, it still holds, the tension between trying to hold back gravity and our awareness that we can’t. I started with the hair because I find it fascinating, the secret techniques of the beauty shop.  My former beautician in Delaware “invented” hair painting, at least as far as I know. I taught my current beautician how to do it. I highly recommend it to those of you who want to admit to only a portion of aging, not the whole shebang.

I looked up gray hair. I read about coloring hair, other people’s attitudes about that.  Probably I found “Venus rings” (which I’d never heard of) by noticing some ad at the side of my screen. Those before and after pictures. This piece is essentially a study, but it’s true that no matter what I’m working on, I almost always approach the subject (the moment, the mood) by plowing into it, staying with the initial impulse to see where it wants to go.  My mind meanders, using that impulse as its tether. Then I check myself, I look things up, because I don’t trust my memory.  I looked up Mandelstam, “The Matrix,” black holes. It’s as if gravity, the subject, really, of the whole piece, pulled me into that complex centerless center. . .

I wasn’t much concerned with what the piece was “about.” It felt like pure play. Maybe it’s about writing, the need to strip away and hide at the same time. Maybe it’s about love, which seems to be of an entirely different register, but I think at last is exactly the same. The pulling against loss, the knowledge that we’ll lose, we’ll lose all that is near and dear to us.

I read this now, after emerging from the dark of chemo and radiation. I read it now, poised in a life that might or might not be gone much more quickly than I had thought, and the piece seems—not trivial, actually. It seems to me the essence of living, full of the funny, silly, tender, and absurd things we do to prop ourselves up because it’s all worth it, to be as alive as we can be.

Read Fleda Brown’s “Home Bodily Repair Kit essay on Brevity.

Write Start Craft Essays and Contest: 75 Word Openings

January 20, 2015 § 8 Comments

wsThe fine folks at Biographile have been running an excellent series of craft essays under the title “Write Start: Practical Advice from Savvy Authors.” Here is a bit of description, with links to the series and the contest they are running in conjunction with Paste magazine:

…we’ve spent the past few months asking forty-plus authors to share their hard-earned writing advice to remind you you’re not alone. For the month of January, in the spirit of new beginnings, Biographile will be spending each day celebrating the craft of writing by giving you all the basics to get started.

Spanning genres, backgrounds, and styles, these authors have given us a goldmine of good habits and encouraging words. From writing rituals, to secrets in overcoming writer’s block, to tricks in engineering the perfect opening paragraph; if one piece doesn’t inspire you to start writing, another will. In the words of one author, echoing the famed advice of another: first things first, if you want to write, start with your ass in the chair.

Are you there yet? Good. Now, sometime this month, if the spirit moves you, start applying Biographile‘s Write Start tips. Pick a piece of writerly advice at random and give it a whirl. Paste Magazine is hosting a writing contest alongside Biographile‘s Write Start series, calling on writers (ahem, you) to pen the opening lines of a story, any story, in seventy-five words or less. All you need to do is cite which piece inspired you to write, submit your entry, and voila — you’re in the running for an iPad mini and a bundle of good books. (More importantly, you’ve got the seeds of a good story.)

 

Only So Much Air: A Flash Metaphor

January 16, 2015 § 4 Comments

BalloonAs we count down to Brevity‘s upcoming January 2015 issue, here’s a brilliant new metaphor for flash prose from Brevity contributor Jill Talbot:

Think of the flash essay like a balloon.  At the essay’s first line, that balloon begins to deflate and there’s only so much air, so we read with that movement, follow the elastic energy of escaping air until it runs out.

The air should move in one whooshing direction so that we feel the push down the page.

The flash can only hold so much—too many people crowd it, too much complexity weighs it down—and we’re left with that sad, half-inflated balloon limping along the floor. And if we alter the direction with a distraction, the balloon reverses its momentum and re-inflates. Too much air and the balloon pops, and we’re startled from our suspension.

[Experimental flash essayists let their deflating balloons go—creating a frenzy of zigzag, a mid-air dance of defiance.]

In the collapse—the last line—we want to be left with the echo of sudden air.

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Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction, co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction.  Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, Zone 3, and more.

Jill Talbot on the Pleasure of Syntax

December 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot is not only one of Brevity‘s favorite essayists but she is lately making her mark as one of our most astute essayists on the essay, helping reveal the inner working of what we do and how we do it well.  Her latest effort, in The Essay Review, studies syntax at ground level, reminding us that the art is in the sentences.

“When I am reading an essay infused with lyrical, lilting, and elongated syntax, I get lost in the wonder, the wander through the language as if I’ve stepped through the door of an unfamiliar house, and I move from room to room, not understanding how I got there or why this room opens to this other one, and I forget to worry where I am or where the door is that will lead me out,” she writes, illustrating her sentence-level wanderings with fascinating examples from Maggie Nelson, Bernard Cooper, Dagoberto Gilb, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, and a host of other authors (including some Brevity essays we are proud of, from Meg Rains, Ander Monson, Roxane Gay, Brenda Miller, and Steven Church.)

You should read Talbot’s essay most definitely, and probably, really, the whole issue.

Facts Don’t Get in the Way of the Truth

December 8, 2014 § 11 Comments

A guest post from Rachael Hanel

Rachael Hanel

Rachael Hanel

As someone who writes nonfiction exclusively, it’s no surprise that my favorite movie genre is the documentary. Give me a two-hour film about anyone, anything, from anytime, and I’m mesmerized. For several years now, I’ve taught an introductory mass media class in which I show one documentary a week. Even after the 20th or so viewing, Bowling for Columbine and The Tillman Story captivate me just like they did the first time I watched them.

My love of the actual extends to the documentary’s close relative, the docudrama. We still get a true story, but with the plot, narrative arc, scene, and character development found in fictional films.

Sound familiar? Creative nonfiction writers are also told to use those foundations of classic storytelling. The docudrama is the filmic equivalent of creative nonfiction. What can docudrama directors tell creative nonfiction writers about crafting stories from the true? Filmmakers who work exclusively with true stories continually find ways to explore the boundaries of the actual.

I was reminded of this while reading a Q&A in the Minneapolis StarTribune with Bennett Miller, the director of films such as Capote, Moneyball, and the critically acclaimed new movie, Foxcatcher. Reading the Q&A makes the parallels between writing and directing nonfiction apparent. How Miller works with the facts to make a film is a good reminder for the nonfiction writer. There’s what we see, and then there’s what’s hidden behind that public front. Miller uses his films to discover what’s hidden, just as we nonfiction writers should do in our essays and books.

Miller tells the StarTribune’s film reviewer Colin Covert how he approaches a film: “… looking and wondering what is the public face and what is the private truth and what might be guarded in the moment. … And so taking a story that’s real affords you the opportunity to make discoveries that are beyond what we might make in ordinary life.”

Covert poses questions perennially asked of creative nonfiction writers: But what about the facts? Do the facts ever get in the way of telling a true story? The unasked question here might as well be: Are you ever tempted to make up things in order to tell a better story?

I wish I could have thought of Bennett’s response: “Sometimes the facts can get in the way of telling a good story. But they don’t get in the way of the truth.”

Bennett further discerns the difference between facts and truth. He describes facts as the foundation from which the story arises. He says he doesn’t consider his films biographies; he prefers the term “portraits.” As such, he’s not concerned with documenting the entirety of a person’s life. Instead he’s more interested in “aspects of a person, aspects of a story.”

The interview couldn’t have been published at a better time for me. I banged out a first draft of a biography (er, I mean, portrait) over the summer. The draft is mostly a compilation of facts just so I could get a clear sense of important events and the timeline of my subject’s life. But now that I have all these facts, I have to figure out how to craft the narrative.

Using Bennett’s perspective is helpful. What truth comes from the facts? What story emerges from between the lines of known events? What’s the metaphor? Bennett says he’s interested in the allegorical. “…it’s especially interesting when you can find a story that has truths that when unearthed yield new insights into something that becomes allegorical.”

Reading well-crafted nonfiction always provides me a muse and has been known to help me emerge from writer’s block. But Bennett’s interview inspires me to take more breaks to watch his films and others like them. When I’m nestled into a movie theater seat to watch Foxcatcher, I won’t feel the least bit guilty. I’m working.

Read Covert’s entire Q&A here.

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Rachael Hanel lives and writes just outside of Mankato, Minnesota. She is a former newspaper reporter and copy editor and teaches Mass Media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is the author of more than 20 nonfiction books for children. We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughteris her first book for adults.

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