Matador: “Offend Fine Storytelling”

September 17, 2017 § 2 Comments

SU17_coverFrom our friends at The Matador Review:

Alternative art and literature magazine The Matador Review is now accepting submissions for the Winter 2018 publication. We publish poetry, fiction, flash fiction, and creative non-fiction, inviting all unpublished literature written in the English language (and translations that are accompanied by the original text) as well as many forms of visual art. The call for submissions will end November 30, 2017.

Our purpose is to promote “alternative work” from both art and literature, and to encourage the new-wave of respect for online publications. In each issue, we offer a selection of work from both emerging and established artists, as well as exclusive interviews and book reviews from creators who are, above all else, provocative. For us, alternative is a way of voice and experience. It is the distinction from what is conventional, and it advocates for a progressive attitude.

When asked by author Angela Yuriko Smith what we’re looking for, Editor-in-Chief JT Lachausse replied:

“We want what you haven’t seen. Allow me to be dramatic: Imagine that every piece of art is represented by a stone. Many stones make up the mountains and buildings, but even more hide beneath the surface. We are so familiar and fond of the overground rocks, but in the caves and oceans-deep, there are stories that tell things wildly. Desperately, furiously, without great laborious sanitizing or editorial puncturing.

Art that seems ridiculous, haughty, aggressive and pathetic. Amateur hour, disjointed comedy, horror shows, family debacles that at first glance seem like New Yorker material, but upon closer inspection offends every cornerstone of ‘fine storytelling’. Not everyone will like it. And that is entirely the point. If you find your pebble at the bottom of a canyon, bring it on over.”

More information can be found at our submissions page, and inquiries may be directed to

A Review of Morten Strøksnes’ Shark Drunk

September 11, 2017 § 2 Comments

zz 14uIiH9AfLBy Virginia Marshall

The subject of Morten Strøksnes’ Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean is a 1,300-pound fish that lives 4,000 feet below the freezing surface of the North Pole. The shark remains off-stage most of the book, but the premise is entirely dependent on the evasive, gruesome creature.

In Shark Drunk, Strøksnes, a Norwegian journalist, describes his various trips to northern Norway to join his friend Hugo Aasjord as they try to capture a Greenland shark “by using the old methods,” which involves a chopped-up, rotting bull, 1,300 feet of rope, and countless hours of waiting in the middle of a frigid fjord.

Translated from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, Shark Drunk is a feast of a read. However, Strøksnes and Hugo aren’t planning to feast on the fish if caught. The fresh meat contains the nerve gas trimethylamine oxide, known to induce a drunken, psychotic state when eaten, making the person “shark drunk.” At one point, Hugo mentions that he might use the oil from the shark’s liver to make paint for his next landscape painting. But mostly, it seems, the point is to go after the thing; the point is to wait and wonder about the mysterious creature and its inhospitable home.

That is the joy of Shark Drunk: experiencing Strøksnes’ wonder as he fills the narrative with impressive facts and stories about sea life in the far north. He writes about the history of fishing in Norway, the effect of climate change in the Arctic, his childhood, as well as mythology, art, literature, and the science of tiny plankton and outer space. I especially appreciated Strøksnes’ text when I visited the northern Norwegian island of Svalbard this past summer. His prose not only made the rocky shores and towering fjords take on new meaning, but his focus on those parts of the natural world that we cannot see—the depths of the ocean that are in some ways more unreachable than Mars—gave me a special, almost mystical view of the landscape. Shark Drunk was a better companion during the trip than any Lonely Planet travel book could be.

The one flaw in the narrative was that Strøksnes tended to drift through topics somewhat randomly—spending a few pages fixated on the physical distance between galaxies and then shifting to describe the claustrophobic drinking culture of Hugo’s small fishing village. That approach made it hard to find footing in the text, and at times his narration could be didactic.

The book’s chronology was loosely tethered to the four visits Strøksnes made over the course of a year, returning each time to drop rancid meat into the ocean and wait for the shark to make an appearance. His persistence is surprising, even to Strøksnes. “We still feel the drag of the irresistible arm Melville wrote about,” he confesses. “Two men in a small boat, never sure what they might encounter out on the sea or what they might pull up from the abyss, beneath melted stars and electric full moons, where breakers and swells assault the islets like hysterical herds of cattle and the lunatic eye of the lighthouse never lets us out of its sight.”

It is the mysterious, glimmering passages like these where Shark Drunk proves itself a unique read. Strøksnes allows himself a certain amount of poetry when he writes about the striking Norwegian landscape from different vantage points—approaching his subject first through the lens of Ovid’s ancient book about the North, then retreating and trying another view, this time by describing one of the countless mackerel that are the shark’s food. The pattern is similar to the fishing tactic the two men use to lure the shark: Strøksnes and Hugo drop bait into the ocean, retreat, then return and re-bait the hook, all in attempt to reel in that mysterious, monstrous subject.

Aside from the omnipresent shark always lurking just out of sight, there is another theme that skirts the edges of Strøksnes’ narrative: the disastrous impact of human activity on the wonders of the deep. But Strøksnes, in his characteristic sideways approach to the heart of each subject, gets at it by first describing the thirty words one Norwegian community had for describing different types of wind. Over several brief passages, Strøksnes expounds on our modern ways of understanding the world, from NASA’s advanced technology to the constellation app he pulls up on his smartphone to observe the heavens. He concludes with a quiet punch:

Unfortunately, the vocabulary, which was previously so rich in describing the nuances of nature, has severely diminished over the past decades. As the words disappear, so does the knowledge of complex ecological connections. Our view of the various landscapes is reduced, we attach less meaning to them, and they become less valuable to us. And that also makes them easier to destroy, in our pursuit of short-term gains.

Strøksnes is searching for the shark, in the end, not to reel it up and display its drunken flesh to the air, but to bring his world closer to that of the unknown. By forming those “disappearing words” into descriptions of the shark and the sea and the land, Strøksnes casts his line into the deep and waits for that one monstrous tug at the other end.


Virginia Marshall is an MFA candidate in nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa. She is also a freelance radio producer and assistant book review editor at the Harvard Review.

William Bradley, a Brilliant Essayist Gone Too Soon

August 29, 2017 § 11 Comments

wmbBy Dinty W. Moore

The nonfiction community lost a bright intellect and fierce advocate yesterday with the death of our friend William Bradley.

William wrote of his battle with cancer and the love he had for his wife Emily this past December here on the Brevity blog, and authored the flash essay “Julio at Large,” a beautiful mediation on freedom and “shitty coal mining towns,” for Brevity magazine in 2010.

He was endlessly curious, funny, generous, and enthusiastic about life and the world. His essay collection Fractals demonstrated all of that, as did his many essays, creative and scholarly, appearing in SalonUtne ReaderThe Chronicle of Higher EducationCreative NonfictionFourth Genre, The Normal School and everywhere else.

Two years back, with the help of his friend Christian Exoo, he one-upped me in the search for the origins of the term creative nonfiction, because he was tireless, and so so smart.

I’m giving his good friend Christian the last word here:

He was the model for the man I wanted to be. Bill was one of the best friends I’ve ever had. He was kind, he was generous, and he loved Emily Isaacson more than I’ve ever seen a husband love a wife. He was smart and funny and truly a beautiful human being. I’m deeply grateful that I got to be his friend for the last 18 years. My hope is that he is remembered fondly as a writer and friend.

Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

A Review of Jennifer Sinor’s Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir

August 7, 2017 § 4 Comments

ordinarytraumaBy Jennifer Ochstein

At a writing conference I recently attended, a panelist fielded a question from an attendee about what makes a good memoir. I’m intimately fascinated by this question since I devour memoirs and am writing my own. The panelist told this story: a creative writing professor he knows was asked by a student why she received a B rather than an A on the piece she submitted. The professor told the girl that her experiences just weren’t that interesting. While the panelist said he’d never tell a student such a thing, he believed that was the crux of it: some people just have more interesting experiences than others.

While I understand the impulse to say such a thing, I bristled, particularly since I’d just finished reading Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir by Jennifer Sinor for the second time. In my mind, the oxymoronic nature of Sinor’s title alone demolishes that misconception.

On a deeper level, juxtapositions and structure, metaphors and language prime readers. What the writer does with the experiences, how she crafts and renders them, causes the particularity of a lived life to universally reverberate with readers, making them feel as if the memoir helps them make sense of their own experiences. At least, that’s how Sinor’s memoir resonates with me. For Sinor, trauma becomes so commonplace, so ordinary, that it defines the life of her family, but how she renders those traumas makes her memoir. Sometimes the ordinary is the most heart-rending.

Sinor’s father seems to know and accept this so he trains his daughter, Jennifer, to act accordingly. He instructs Jennifer to never let her emotions get in the way of acting rational. Beneath the surface of his lesson is a personal edict he seems to live by: bury trauma. Her father, a career Navy man and maritime law expert, gives her practical advice on how to do this:

When something bad happens to you, Jennifer … you simply think of your mind like a dresser … A dresser full of drawers. And you take the bad thing, the memory, the loss, whatever it is, and you put it in the drawer of the dresser. Envision yourself doing this, like you were packing clothes in there. Then you shut the drawer and lock it. You lock it. Do you hear me?

Jennifer falls in line, lockstep.

Sinor sets Ordinary Trauma against the backdrop of the early 1970s and 1980s Cold War to illustrate the unacknowledged tensions and traumas that submerge families in their own cold wars, taking them to the brink of destruction. On top of that, she juxtaposes incidents that reveal how her family’s cold war escalates and how she consistently must lock away her feelings in order to keep those escalations from erupting and blowing her to smithereens. She does this by creating an internal order, fixating on counting pennies, for example, or listening to a Christmas song over and over. Later she develops anorexia. Fixating keeps her from emotionally marking the traumatic experiences, including her own near-death as an infant, sexual abuse, the scalding of her newborn younger brother, and later accidents that nearly caused his death. All of it is neatly tucked away so that she can hardly figure a way to deal with her own emotive reactions when they arise unexpectedly. She writes, “I cannot sort them, cannot label them, cannot explain my actions.”

Survival over pain and loss becomes a kind of liturgy that her father also teaches her. Just as she fixates on counting pennies, he teaches her how to count ocean waves during one of the family’s stints living in Hawaii. He wants her to master them rather than fear them, to dive beneath them rather than be drowned:

Waves arrive in sets of seven, he explains, and within each set of seven the waves increase in size, the next always bigger than the last. In addition, each set of waves also increases through seven sets of seven, the forty-ninth wave, then, being the largest of the series … The rules of the sea. At the seventh wave, like magic, the waves subside, a tiny ripple wandering up the sand.

It’s as if by mastering the rules, she’ll somehow never be pummeled and dragged out to sea. What she needs to watch out for is the rogue wave, the kahuna, “the one that will take you down,” her father tells her.

It’s the juxtaposition of her father’s advice to lock away her hurts and his lessons in diving deeply beneath the ocean’s waves that reveals the real oxymoron and packs the most powerful punch. She learns well from his lessons. On the one hand, because she locks away that which hurts her the most, she can hardly understand her own actions and emotions, but when she’s confronted with a kahuna, a life circumstance she suspects will surely drown her, she realizes the gift her father gave her: “the strength to do the hard thing” and the ability to “save herself.”

Sinor not only schools us in the art of the memoir, but also in the art of survival.


Jennifer Ochstein is a Midwestern writer and professor who has published essays with Hippocampus Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, The Cresset, Connotation Press, and Evening Street Review. Like many other creative nonfiction writers, she’s working on a memoir about her mother, and she’s discovered it takes just as long to process that relationship as it has to live with it.





Rose Metal Open Reading Period

August 3, 2017 § 2 Comments

internFrom our friends at Rose Metal Press:


From August 1 through August 31, we will be having an open reading period for full-length hybrid and cross-genre manuscripts. We are interested in short short, flash, and micro-fiction; prose poetry; novels-in-verse or book-length linked narrative poems; flash nonfiction or book-length memoirs-in-shorts; fragmentary works and book-length lyric essays; image and text collaborations and other collaborative work; and other literary works that move beyond traditional genres to find new forms of expression. The best way to see what we mean by hybrid is to take a look at our catalog. We welcome submissions in all styles and on all subjects, and encourage a broad and expansive interpretation of hybridity. Surprise us with your innovation! Manuscripts selected from this reading period will be published by Rose Metal Press in 2019 and beyond.

Manuscripts should be 48 pages or longer. Submissions will be accepted through our Submittable site only. There is a $15 reading fee.

Check out all the reading period details and guidelines here.

Please spread the word to other hybrid genre writers you know!
Submit now through Submittable.

An Egg-Poaching Pep Talk That is Definitely Not a Metaphor for a Writer’s Career

July 5, 2017 § 9 Comments

MLP_0096 (1).jpgBy Mary Laura Philpott

You will poach this egg.

OK, yes — you’ve ruined eight eggs this morning already. But this is it. You can do it. You poached an egg last weekend. You weren’t even trying that hard — you just followed the instructions from the first Google result for “how to poach egg” and it worked. A perfectly shiny little white blob, like a newborn albino jellyfish or a still-wet cloud on a painting. It sat right on that English muffin, pretty as you please. It was so good, you ate it in three bites. You didn’t even photograph it because you figured, “Well if I did it once, I’ll do it again; I’ll take pictures next time.”

And now you’re having trouble repeating your poached glory, even though you’re swirling the water in circles. You’re adding the spoonful of vinegar. You’re keeping the water just below a boil. You’re doing everything you’re supposed to do, and there is no reason these eggs aren’t poaching. Or there is a reason, and you can’t fathom it. The secret of the egg eludes you. You’re trying to think like an egg, but you’re too self-conscious — you’re just thinking like a person who’s trying to think like an egg would think. You have to loosen up and get into the egg mindset. Get into the flow.

Don’t think about the eight eggs you slipped into the water, one after another, saying a prayer and watching as each one spun out into soggy little egg-rags, shreds of a sail washed up after a storm, no sign of the ship. Thinking about that is why you’re paralyzed — staring into the almost-boiling water, holding another egg, unable to make yourself do it. The stakes feel higher somehow, like there are only so many eggs a person can dash to watery ruination before the right to try again is revoked. That’s a valid feeling, but it’s not true. You’re no more likely to screw up this time than any time before. Don’t listen to that feeling.

This poaching process is not an extended metaphor for your life. Extended metaphors never work anyway, you know that. This egg is not your career. It’s not the article everyone’s waiting for you to write after your last article went viral. It’s not proof that you can’t make lightning strike twice. It’s only an egg. Just a goddamned egg.

You might be thinking, “Maybe I should just make some avocado toast instead. I could post a picture of my toast and pretend that’s all I was trying to do all along. And if everyone thinks toast is all I was after, it will look like I got what I wanted, and everyone will congratulate me, and I’ll feel great.”

Except you’ll know you never poached the egg.

It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just an egg.

And you will poach it. Crack the fucking egg.

Mary Laura Philpott is an essayist, cartoonist, and contributor to publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, McSweeney’s, and Lit Hub. Across her work, she examines the overlap of the absurd and the profound in literature, culture, and daily life. She is also the author of Penguins with People Problems; the editor of Musing, the online magazine produced by Parnassus Books; and an Emmy-winning co-host of the literary interview show A Word on Words. She offers weekly pep-talks via animal doodles on Instagram @WildLifeCoach.



June 27, 2017 § 21 Comments

By Melissa Ballard

Beginning in mid-2015, I broke a nearly-three-year run of rejections with a steady sequence of acceptances. When a writer friend helped me create a web page, I joked that I’d never again get an essay published. That was eight months ago, not that I’m counting. I have one “active” essay on Submittable, but at least six more in my files that are almost finished. Allison K. Williams’ “The Value of Getting Sh*t Done”–and common sense– tell me that one essay in my queue is not the way to change the situation. So, why can’t I finish?

I’m retired from a job in academic support at Oberlin College, where I worked with many students who had writer’s block. What advice would I have given them?

Step away from your draft

Do some free writing

Make a list or a word cloud or a sketch

Just do something, and see where it leads.

So I cleared my desk. I wrote the title of each essay on its own 3×5 card, and made notes about why I hadn’t finished it. Turns out I had perfectly valid reasons, even if only I could understand them. An essay about my dad’s last job, the one that may have caused his death (and my complicity therein) isn’t done because I’m waiting for an “e-mail with tech info about job from A.M.” Trust me, it’s essential. I’ve tabled another because I’m not sure I’ve adequately dealt with race issues.  And one just sounded “trite.” Maybe the one I haven’t submitted because I’m waiting for a “sign from the universe” is harder to defend, but the essay in question is much more about someone else’s story than it is mine, so I need to get it right.

At any rate, as soon as I’d finished filling out those 3×5 cards, I began working on one of the essays. The next day I finished it, and submitted it to “Modern Love” at the New York Times. They responded within 24 hours, and my essay will run next week.

That last paragraph is fiction. What I really did was toss the cards to the side, check Facebook, make some tea, and read a couple of chapters in a novel.

I haven’t yet finished any of those essays.

This is the way it goes. I am reminded, again and again, that nothing about writing (at least for me) is straightforward. It never turns out the way I expect it to, but I keep returning to my desk, telling myself that something will eventually happen. Sometimes I manage to believe it.

Instead of finishing one of my essays, I wrote this post. OK, I drafted it and it sat on my desktop for a couple of weeks. Two days ago, I worked on it during a timed writing session with the friend who helped me with my website. She said, as she sometimes does when I read a draft to her, “I love it. I can’t think of a thing you should change. Submit it now.” But I didn’t. I’ve been tinkering with it, trying to find a snappy ending.

“Three writers go into a bar” seems too obvious.

I can’t even type, “The secret of writing is…” without laughing.

But there’s another possibility: If you’re reading this now, it means I finally finished a piece. Maybe that’s my snappy ending.


Melissa Ballard studied fashion merchandising, worked retail, and was a bank teller and a public school camp counselor before deciding higher education might be a good idea. Her essays appear in Brevity, Compose Journal, Full Grown People, Gravel and other publications. She just got the email about her dad’s job…ass in chair time.

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