The View from the Slush Pile, Part 2

November 10, 2015 § 3 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.
Stephanie G'Schwind

Stephanie G’Schwind

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.

Ander "Looks Good in Shorts" Monson

Ander “Looks Good in Shorts” Monson

Panelist #4: Ander Monson

Species: Writer, Editor

Affiliations: DIAGRAM (published since 2000, is the second oldest literary journal still publishing, released 6x a year)

Further Reading: New Michigan Press, Essay Daily, Letter to a Future Lover, Neck Deep and Other Predicaments


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.

The View from the Slush Pile, Part 1

November 9, 2015 § 8 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

zz hattie

Hattie Fletcher

Panelist #1: Hattie Fletcher

Species: Non-writing Managing Editor

Affiliation: Creative Nonfiction (21 year old magazine, publishes exclusively nonfiction, circulation 10,000)

Further Reading: In Search of Moments of Real Connection: An interview with Hattie Fletcher


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.

Steven Church

Steven “Nonfiction Fan Boy” Church

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)

Further Reading: Ultrasonic, The Guinness Book of Me, The Day After The Day After


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.

A Review of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

November 6, 2015 § 4 Comments

By Marion Agnew

415GI3IIIgL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Summer mornings, I often walk along the two-track unpaved driveway that leads from my family’s secluded cottage on Lake Superior to the paved road. I pass under mature birches and weedy Manitoba maples, my flip-flops treading an old dirt-and-stone path. In the 1920s, my grandfather carved it through the forest with a handsaw and built it up along a cliff, moving boulders using a block and tackle.

For more than fifty years, I’ve crawled, toddled, and run along this path. I know the plateau where a windstorm in the ’90s blew down a stand of balsam that still needs to be cleaned up, and where over-exuberant alder has blocked views of the lake.

Ten years ago, I left the US to settle in Canada, because I’d always loved my summer visits and never wanted to leave. Learning to love winter in northwestern Ontario has been a challenge. But summer—well, I thought I knew this place in summer. Yet lately I look at that familiar path with new eyes, all because of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

I picked up this book in part to learn about the natural world, and in part to learn from models of successful individual essays.

I expected lessons, but what I found were teachings—knowledge that’s offered, instead of information and dogma.

Yes, Kimmerer is a botanist, who speaks about the natural world with a scientist’s authority. She’s also a Potawatomi woman, who’s dedicated to traditional ways of knowing and sharing her knowledge. This book braids these multiple perspectives into a series of essays that’s coherent and compelling.

In indigenous stories, sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata in Latin; wiingaashk in Anishinabemowin) was one of the first plants to grow on the earth. The chapters in this book fall into sections based on the ways indigenous people interact with sweetgrass: planting, tending, picking, braiding, and burning. Individual chapters combine stories and ruminations that wander through myriad subjects (wild strawberries, mast fruiting, water lilies) and settings (a weed-choked pond, a superfund site, the Kentucky mountains, a forest research station).

Language-lovers may find “Learning the Grammar of Animacy” particularly interesting. In it, Kimmerer describes learning, as an adult, the Potawatomi language. In contrast to noun-intensive English, Potawatomi relies on verbs that grant living status to just “things” in English, such as the “days of the week” or “a bay.” She writes, “‘To be a bay’ holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too.”

Kimmerer communicates with insight: “To be heard, you must speak the language of the one you want to listen.” That is written in an essay that appears to be a scientific paper about the growth habits of sweetgrass. In fact, it ponders points of friction between academic science and under-represented perspectives. She speaks frankly of the difficulties facing women in science, and the disdain academic scientists have for indigenous knowledge.

In these essays, Kimmerer sends out a gentle, affirming call to act on behalf of our world, using our creative gifts: “books, paintings, poems, the clever machines, the compassionate acts, the transcendent ideas, the perfect tools.” Being grateful is important, Kimmerer says, but not enough. Everyone must act.

Since reading Braiding Sweetgrass, I’ve turned my walks into “compassionate acts.” Instead of eyeing spots to apply my chainsaw, I notice the woodpeckers have been at that dead spruce, deer have created a new path around the brush pile, and the eagle seems fond of the birch snag. Instead of imposing my will, I try to support these creatures, and write with more freedom and passion.

Marion Agnew writes fiction and creative nonfiction in an office overlooking Lake Superior. Her work has appeared in literary journals and Best Canadian Essays (2012 and 2014). She’s currently writing a novel that includes families, bears, and clearing brush.


How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book

November 5, 2015 § 19 Comments

Church_Photo-Larger B&W-2014Steven 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.

There is No Dust in My House: On Writing About Myself and Other People

November 4, 2015 § 20 Comments

By Lori Jakiela

Lori Jakiela

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.

Partial List of Books Mentioned at NonfictioNow Conference in Flagstaff

November 3, 2015 § 3 Comments

Collated by Gila Lyons:

il_570xN.296615257For those who couldn’t make the NonfictioNow Conference in Flagstaff this past week, or for those of you too jetlagged, overwhelmed, altitude-sick, or introverted to get to everything you wanted to, don’t despair! Here’s a partial list of books and pieces mentioned by panelists and keynote speakers (partial = things I made it to). Please note, we’ve given Amazon links for books to make it easy to read summaries and reviews, but remember to support your local bookstore if you have one, or your library, or just raid your friends’ bookshelves instead!

Keynotes’ Recommendations:

Brian Doyle – In his impassioned keynote that implored writers to catch and tell stories, and reminded us that we have a moral imperative to “listen, live humbly, write, and not be an ass,” Brian Doyle reported that at a high school a student recently asked him, “If all your essays were to disappear except for two, which two would you keep?” Doyle answered, without hesitation and with great conviction, “‘Dawn And Mary‘, and ‘Leap.’ All my other pieces can go piss off.”

Maggie Nelson – In her keynote on the body in time, Maggie Nelson mentioned Hervé Guibert’s Mausoleum of Lovers: Journals 1976-1991 as well as his autobiographical novel To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. She quoted from David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration and referenced Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and Body Undone: Living On After Great Pain by her mentor Christina Crosby. Clifford Chase’s The Tooth Fairy: Parents, Lovers, and Other Wayward Deities (A Memoir) and Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s and Other Essays also got mentions. N.B. You can find six more of Nelson’s nonfiction picks here at Vela Mag.

Panelist’s Recommendations:

Michele Morano’s essay, “How to Cross A Street in Mumbai

Bernard Cooper’s essay, “Live Wire

Lawrence Sutin’s book, A Postcard Memoir

B..J. Hollars’ book, Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction

Paisley Rekdal’s book, Intimate: An American Family Photo Album

Amy Leach’s book, Things That Are

The Making of a Poem, edited by Eavan Boland and Mark Strand.

Ander Monson’s essay, “I Have Been Thinking About Snow

Lia Purpura’s essay, “On Being a Trucker

Mark Doty’s essay, “Return to Sender” in the Touchstone Anthology o Contemporary Creative Nonfiction

Jon Robin Baitz’s play, Other Desert Cities

Michael Martone’s book, Michael Martone: Fictions

Peter Turchi’s book, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer

You can read more about the conference at the NonfictioNow blog, at Assay Journal, and at the Twitter handle #NFNOW15. Panelists and attendees, feel free to add your recommendations in the comments below!

Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, GOOD Magazine, The Morning News, Ploughshares, Tablet, and other publications. She lives in Boston, where she teaches writing and is at work on a memoirLinks to published work can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @gilalyons

Breaking Up Isn’t That Hard To Do

November 3, 2015 § 31 Comments

Always a classic. From XKCD.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a post from a conservative wingnut someone whose political views differ from mine. It wasn’t their original thought, but a re-posted meme from a hate-mongering politically oriented talk radio station. A photo, with a caption, that touched on an issue I hold dear, that I believe to be genuinely important in my country and to my fellow citizens.

And it was wrong.

Someone was wrong on the internet.

I looked up some statistics. I did some math. I rephrased as evenhandedly as I could. I revised. I posted my response, with substantiating links and documentation that this wasn’t just my opinion, this was verifiable fact.

It took forty-five minutes.

The response–one sane and compassionate person who agreed with me, a few likes, and a doubling-down from the original poster, reaffirming her position that people not as white and wealthy as I am are lazy whiners financial difficulty is a moral failing.

It took forty-five minutes. And not just forty-five minutes of writing and research time (time I should have spent on an essay, or freelance editing, or the upcoming Brevity podcast), but forty-five minutes of focused emotional investment during which I was–literally–trembling with rage.

The original poster might well be a loon have different views from me. But I don’t hate her–I don’t even dislike her. I’ve been her guest, eaten her food, had many lovely and temperate in-person discussions.

What’s right with Facebook is that I can keep in touch with my friends, family and acquaintances. Cheer their successes, console their failures, have a quick online chat to catch up, set up coffee when I’m in town.

What’s wrong with Facebook is that I care. These are people I have a personal investment in, not bloggers I follow or website articles several steps removed by virtue of being “the media.”

What’s right with Facebook is that it invites dialogue. What’s wrong with Facebook is that it invites dialogue.

So I took a break. Moved the icon into my fourth-screen folder next to Apple Watch and Stocks, activated Self-Control for the first twenty-four hours. It’s been tough to change the physical habit of checking whenever I have a minute, but it was easier than I thought to cut the emotional cord. Yes, my thumb strays to the screen, but I’m realizing how much was mindless habit rather than an actual connection to the information. I’ve subbed in Twitter when I feel the pull, and the very nature of Twitter is less emotional. There are fewer people I know as people rather than their media face, I see more subjects faster, and the 140-character limit is not an easy venue for serious argument. It’s the online equivalent of chewing gum instead of lighting up, filling the physical urge without continuing the addiction.

I haven’t suddenly filled that extra time with a fountain of new words of great beauty and technical craft, but I’m no longer spending time dreading multi-day conversations that leave me in helpless fury. I haven’t been in a pointless argument with a friend whose mind I will fail to change. I haven’t “needed” to assert my moral superiority correct online strangers.

Will I be back? Probably. It’s still the easiest way I’ve found to stay connected to the mix of friends, acquaintances, and fellow writers in my life. This is a separation rather than a divorce. But finding out I may want you in my life but I don’t need you feels pretty good.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the host of the Brevity podcast, which will debut in January.

Comic illustration by XKCD


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