March 23, 2015 § 1 Comment
This blog post is, really, a confession of love, though I suspect it’s not much of a confession… that you all already know that I love Brevity. I love it as a reader, because it has introduced me to so many wonderful writers, many of whom are just beginning their writing careers. I love it as a teacher of writing, because it allows me to build and rebuild my syllabi every semester around new and compelling works that lead my students toward a better understanding of both the art and the craft of creative nonfiction. And I love it as a person who cares about literature, because it fosters a community of readers and writers alike who are passionate about and dedicated to the transformative power of good writing.
I’m writing this to ask you to join me in supporting this thing that I—that we—love. We’re launching Brevity’s first fundraiser today; a Kickstarter campaign to fund our special issue on gender and some of the journal’s operating costs. (Which, for the most part, have throughout its history been funded from Dinty’s pocket. I think it’s time to say both “thank you” and “hey, why don’t you let us pitch in?” I’m betting that you think so, too, and that’s why I talked him into this Kickstarter.)
Many, many of Brevity’s authors have contributed exciting rewards: signed copies of books, essay critiques. We are also offering the usual postcards, bumper stickers, and mugs, because Brevity is nothing if not aware of genre conventions, and this IS a Kickstarter, after all. Heck, you can even join us at #AWP16 in LA for “Brunch with Brevity,” where we promise you can order both the bacon AND the sausage while talking shop with Dinty and the editors. We think our swag is the best swag, and we’re proud to bring it to you.
But, mostly—like Brevity itself—this Kickstarter is about the love of good writing, and about supporting the things we love and find important. I hope you’ll agree with me that Brevity is worth supporting, and contribute. The campaign runs through April 23rd, but don’t wait. We have some great rewards, but not many of most of them.
View the Kickstarter Here, and Thank You,.
Sarah Einstein, Special Gender Issue Co-Editor and Huge Brevity Fangirl
March 21, 2015 § 5 Comments
As is often the case, my most beautiful moment while living homeless in New York was born out of an ugly moment. I hadn’t seen it coming, and in some respects was unprepared for it. So far, nearly every homeless person I had met on the streets had been happy for me to spend time with them and document their lives. But in Preston, a black man in his early 60s who spent his days collecting cans, I found a lot of anger that, by all accounts, had no outlet.
I became that outlet.
We were standing in a subway car at the time. I had followed Preston as he worked his way down from the entrance to the 5 train at Union square, with four industrial bags as tall as him that were full with cans for recycling. The bags were so big and heavy he could only take two at a time. He went back and forth, continually trying to catch up with himself.
Preston began shouting at me pretty much from my introduction. He was angry about many things, poverty, the distribution of wealth, a system designed to keep the poor poor, and the racism he witnessed and experienced every day.
“The black man is good enough to die face down in the mud for his country. But he ain’t good enough that he can get a decent job, a yellow cab, a safe place to sleep after he gave his youth to this here USA!”
Preston shouted at me all the way to the 149th street, where he exited the train with two of the bags.
“Well, what are you doing now?’ he demanded when I followed him with the other two bags.
Preston was a small, but strong man. Collecting cans in Manhattan was something he did with the seriousness and discipline of a small business owner trying to get to the next level. Only Preston wasn’t aiming for any next level. There was no promotion or better working conditions. Just him, his trolley, his bags and whatever weather was thrown at him.
I followed Preston, with the surprisingly really heavy bags, to the recycling station. I think the expression of shock and sadness on my face when we arrived was in part what softened Preston.
After the recycling Preston showed me where he lived. Due to an accident with a bungee cord that hospitalized him, Preston had been given one-room digs with a shared bathroom. He showed me quickly around, and then started showing me pictures of his granddaughter. He was alive now, animated and smiling as he told of how she always tried to get a dollar out of him.
To see that transition, from the angriest man I had ever met to the smiling, wonderful grandfather remains one of the most special things I have ever witnessed. Preston went from being closed, suspicious and aggressive to open, warm and giving. It gave me a sense of hope, knowing that something as simple as a conversation could turn back the clocks until a former, happier self emerged. He was not lost. He was still in there.
Alan Emmins is an English writer living in Copenhagen, Denmark. His books have been published in the UK, US and Japan, and his articles have appeared in Time Out, Dazed & Confused, GQ, Playboy, The New York Post, The New York Daily News and many others.
March 20, 2015 § 1 Comment
By Rebecca Fish Ewan
When I heard Ariel Gore had published a new memoir, I bought it instantly. Then I set the thin book beside my bed and avoided it for months. The cover flap read, “Ariel doesn’t want to take care of her crazy dying mother, but she knows she will.” I couldn’t bring myself to read what I knew would be an honest, funny, authentic account of how she did it. Brilliantly, of course.
I read memoirs, because I like to see how other people negotiate the hard realities of life, including death. They help me believe that perhaps I can manage my way through similar circumstances, if and when they arise. I knew Ariel Gore wouldn’t disappoint, and I wanted to read her book, but I wasn’t ready to consider how I might behave if I were in her place, because I knew I’d fuck it up.
Reading about caring for a mother who had never been particularly caring felt too close to what I’d spent years avoiding. So the book sat, until I had read through my bedside stack. Then one night with my husband out of town and the kids asleep, I lay in my bed unable to turn my mind off. So I picked up The End of Eve and began to read. Trained as a poet, I read slowly and finished the book in a few days (a normal reader could have finished it in hours).
What I love about Ariel Gore’s The End of Eve is that it always sets a bull’s-eye on Leon Battista Alberti’s concinnitas, the idea of beauty he describes as a “reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added or taken away, or altered, but for the worse.” Gore has such well-honed storytelling skills that she pares away the unnecessary until all that remains is a spare, exposed and beautiful story. Nothing need be added, nor taken away or altered.
Also, her writing has a musicality to it with recognizable beats of single sentence or one-word paragraphs that bring readers to attention, like a quick snap of her fingers: “The sound of morning rain.” Snap, I’m awake. “Santa Fe. I lived here now.” Snap. “Fluorescent light and the smell of disinfectant.” Snap. “The hiss of the oxygen tank.” Snap. “I tore cilantro, cut limes.” Snap. These beats grab me and keep me close, so I can taste, feel and see the story as it unfolds, all the way to the last line: “And now I was free.”
While reading The End of Eve, I was transported beyond the quiet sphere of light from my bedside lamp. I went to Portland, met Eve, and became annoyed by the rain and Eve’s selfishness. I sat in the quiet as Ariel wrote Behave in a way you’re going to be proud of on her wrist with a Sharpie while nursing her son, Maxito. I packed up and drove to New Mexico with her partner, Sol, and sweet Maxito, who became as the story developed a Yoda for me, always popping in with deep child wisdom. Like when tagging along as Ariel ships Eve’s remains to California and he declares, “That’s not Nonna…It’s just the ashes left over.” And I felt the scraping puncture of each tattoo Ariel added to her body. After her stars have healed, she wants more and plans a tattoo date with a woman known only as the chef. Gore writes, “What was a tattoo anyway, but a visual reminder of pain and memory. The memoir inked into our skin.”
Even though the content of The End of Eve scared me away at first, what drew me in, besides the phenomenal writing, was the humor. Gore delivers this story so I can both laugh at the absurd (a girlfriend sneaking about with a mime) and feel my heart quake at her sad isolation like when her mother tosses all Ariel’s belongings out of the house, changes the locks and then gets an attorney to investigate Ariel’s so-called abuse/neglect of Maxito for having nowhere sufficient to live).
In truth, after reading the book, I didn’t have any better idea how to reconcile my own mother/daughter relationship, or lack thereof, but I knew it could be done and done with love, humor, and wisdom. And that gives me hope. What more does one need?
Rebecca Fish Ewan, author of A Land Between, has an MFA in creative writing from Arizona State University where she teaches landscape history and design. She lives in Tempe with her family and is finishing the drawings for her narrative verse cartoon memoir of a childhood friendship cut short by murder. For more of her writing and sketches, see www.rebeccafishewan.com.
March 19, 2015 § 5 Comments
In a recent residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts (great place, check it out!), our workshop leader had us do a daily exercise from cartoonist Lynda Barry: Divide the paper into four sections, label them Did, Saw, Heard and leave one open for a picture. In each quadrant, note down things we did, saw, and heard – and draw a picture.
It’s an exercise in observation, it’s fun, it’s a good free-write to get started on the page, and after about day three I stopped worrying about the quality of my drawing.
The exercise comes from Lynda Barry’s actual syllabus for her class at the University of Wisconsin, a nonfiction-driven cartooning class. And Barry’s whole syllabus, in more or less the form in which she issued it to her students, is also available as a book. Check out some selections from Syllabus over at Open Culture – maybe there’s an exercise you’d like to do, with or without a class.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
March 18, 2015 § 1 Comment
A reminder: We have been blessed with a large number of high-quality submissions and have almost fully filled our September 2015 issue. We have a bit of a longer backlog than we are comfortable with as well, so we will be shutting down our submission period earlier than usual this year: March 25th, to be exact. We will reopen at the end of the summer.
Our special May 2015 issue, however, focusing on gender — what it is, what it means, how our understanding of it is changing — will remain open to submissions until APRIL 20th. The early close only applies to our general category.
Thanks for your loyalty, your patience, and your excellent essays.
March 17, 2015 § 3 Comments
by Amye Archer
I first read Abigail Thomas’ Safekeeping as a new mother, my belly still plump, my babies still purple, and my world still so vulnerable and tenuous. In Thomas’ beautiful memoir, I found someone who understood these things, the difficulties of becoming someone’s mother and someone’s wife, while still unsure of your very self. Safekeeping was the right book at the right time for me in so many ways, and with Thomas’ new memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It, I found that same understanding and reassurance at-once again-the exact right moment.
What Comes Next is the story of a lifelong friendship between the author and Chuck, a man we come to respect as Thomas’ equal if not soul-mate. However, as with every book Thomas writes, this is a story of deep reflection and self-examination of herself as a mother, friend, writer, and most importantly woman. The narrative is comprised of three main threads: the author’s friendship with Chuck, her daughter’s devastating diagnosis and subsequent battle with cancer, and finally, Thomas’ remarkable insight into aging-gracefully. These threads are punctuated with stories of Thomas discovering a new passion for painting, and of course, there are the beloved dogs.
What I’ve always admired about Abigail Thomas is her ability to articulate the nuance of femininity in all of its states, including the most important state of all: as fallible beings. In What Comes Next, Thomas speaks openly of her divorce and the effect it had on her young children, “I talked about what happened to my children when I got divorced, and I got upset, remembering how they had suffered…Then I burst into tears.” On love, “Every now and again I’m afraid Chuck will fall in love with somebody and I will lose him. This comes from the worst part of myself, the possessive part.” Always frank, always honest, always pure. There is much introspection in these pages, hard-fought truths for which Thomas has battled bravely. She must forgive those who’ve wronged her, she must quit smoking, and she must give up the drinking for which she has become too fond. Thomas’ ability to shine her light on the darkest parts of herself endear her to the reader. We trust her, and wherever she goes, we follow.
What Comes Next is full of heart, passion, and a great sense of comfort as we, the reader, realize that in the end-everything will be okay. We are left with the belief that family, friendships, feuds, pets, grandchildren, all of these things that comprise our shared human experience will endure. And in some cases, things will be better. After a disappointing dating experience Thomas writes, “But being seventy has its advantages. I did not spend any time wondering what I’d done wrong, or what I could or should have done differently, whether I was too old or too fat or ask too many questions. I am who I am and it has taken me a long time to get here.”
As with Safekeeping, What Comes Next was the right book for me at the right time, but I’m beginning to think this is not a coincidence. I think anyone would do well to read any book by Thomas at any time. Some memoirists write their experience. Abigail Thomas has an uncanny ability to write our experience.
Amye Archer has an MFA from Wilkes University and blogs at www.thefatgirlblog.com.
Lessons in Community, Rejection, and Doggedness: What I’m Actually Learning in an MFA Writing Program Now That I’ve Finally Gotten Around to It
March 16, 2015 § 19 Comments
A guest post from Samantha Claire Updegrave:
I’ve been chewing on Ryan Boudinot’s essay “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One” that ran in my (Seattle’s) local weekly, The Stranger, at the end of last month. Perhaps especially so, since I wonder (worry?) he’s trashing people like me: a late-blooming writer in her late thirties who struggles with imposter syndrome and is pursuing a low-residency MFA anyway, works an extracting full-time office day job, and is raising a five-year-old who requires health insurance, time and attention, and regular feedings.
But I’m in a split camp.
Boudinot’s piece is funny, in the way satire is funny; I get the tongue-in-cheek humor. There are points where I agree – talent is a real thing, you must actually write, writers need to be readers, it doesn’t matter if people think you are smart, and you must, absolutely, woodshed. But satire is barbed.
* * *
As an undergraduate, I studied urban planning. There’s a video of me at a governance meeting: I’m standing between my chair and the table spewing a ruthless litany against a fellow student’s proposal. I’m shredding it, and in that wake, I discredit any merit, thought, intention, or work that went into its creation. Afterward, people slapped me on the shoulder, thanked me for saying what they couldn’t (wouldn’t) say. There were a lot of high fives.
When my friend played me the tape, what I saw was mortifying, and it filled me with shame.
I was an asshole.
And I knew it then, as sure as I know it now, I never wanted to be that person in that video ever again.
* * *
The idea of the real deal, that some (a few) people are and therefore some (most) people are not, has plagued just about every endeavor that’s caught my interest. This creates a complicated relationship between talent and work/study/practice of the thing. It goes like this: if you were worth anything, you would’ve known by age 5, and you’d already be great.
When I was younger, this often had the power to stop me from working hard and learning. My fear of failure was tied to the possibility of discovering the real problem was that I had no talent. It was a possibility I wasn’t willing to face, and so a rejection of study and rules, was a way to save face, at least with myself. It made me shy about my voice and value. A strange envy of people who were doing the work grew into a monsterish comparison game where one person’s success only highlighted my inabilities. I can’t even call them failure, because to fail one needs to risk trying, and somewhere along the way I stopped.
COMMUNITIES are the places we live, work, and play. The MFA writing program creates spaces where writers learn and grow, push at their edges, engage with others.
Life can have a way of catapulting us great distances only to bring us back home, bedraggled and, hopefully humbled and ready to be our true selves. After life as an adult led me through a stint in the Air Force, college, marriage, having a baby, divorce, losing my job and house in the economic collapse – I finally got clear. Writing was more than a hobby and I couldn’t, or no longer wanted to, ignore its pull. But I still wasn’t comfortable calling myself a writer. I only knew that I was a better person when I was writing than when I wasn’t writing and so I committed to get down to the work of it and focus on craft and signed up for a continuing education program. I was a terrible student. My assignments were always late and incomplete, served with an essay about why my essay was incomplete and terrible. My teacher held the faith I couldn’t. And in that time, I broke free, took risks, failed, succeeded, failed again, kept going. That’s when I decided to attend a low residency MFA. Within a month of my acceptance, I was rehired at my old job, with a promotion, and decided to continue to pursue my MFA, but at a slower pace.
I’m 37 year old and 3rd year in: I still have another sixteen months to go, and at least another 25,000 to finish my thesis, which I have come to call “my book.”
Because real deal or not, I am writing a book. Something I didn’t ever think I could do, despite being an early and a big reader. (Maybe I figured I couldn’t do it because I truly hated The Great Gatsby. To this day, I haven’t been able to finish it, but don’t tell my HS English teacher – I’m pretty sure I wrote a paper on it as if I had read it when really I took stellar notes during class).
Community makes that possible: it provides the framework and structure, support, and makes the impossible seem possible, within reach.
The alumni reading I went to my first semester made my skin break into goose bumps. They were so good! The old me would have leapt into discouragement; this truer version of myself I was discovering smiled. Damn. I’m going to write that well some day.
I was home. This was the community where I could open to learning, playing, to risk and failure. To be a part of other writers’ processes, to see their fledgling ideas turn and dive and surface in new places, is a thrill. I don’t like every piece I encounter, but I understand more about the subject and author and human expression because of them. Nor is every piece I present received favorably. In my first workshop one student threw up her hands and flat out said she didn’t get it. And that honesty was welcomed. I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture, but it does seem to me that not everyone is there to be the real deal. Many of us there because we love learning. We love to study and know and try. And to have a place to do so is important.
REJECTION is plentiful in the writing life.
The daily grind is tough. I choose a low residency MFA so I could continue to work and support my kiddo, stay within proximity to the family and friends who are pillars of the support structures needed to raise up a small person. I work full-time in urban planning, and do all the morning stuff – make breakfast, pack lunches, take my son to school on the METRO bus, walk downtown to work, then reverse it at night. (Luckily my partner cooks dinner, or we’d all starve.) I’ve started to teach one night a week, and try to make it out for a couple of times a month for readings, big or small.
Six days a week, I wake up at 4:45 am, and write for an hour and half before my son gets up. Most of what I write no one will ever see, and these are the best of me because they are me at work, figuring and crafting and discovering the words. When I do send my work out into the world – I pitch big and small. I pitch to email addresses garnered through contacts and through Submittable and apply for residencies. It’s grueling and solitary.
In the month of January, I received 13 rejections.
I’m learning the rejection is literal and not personal. It’s still hard to weather, and I’m grateful for my community where we celebrate each other’s success and rejections.
DOGGEDNESS, I’ve been told, is essential to survive and thrive.
In the month of January, I had one acceptance and one piece published. February, another two acceptances and two pieces published. Two more pieces are slated to run in April. I’m waiting to hear back on 10 pitches and submissions. Their chances are slim. Yet, I pick up my pen every day and write on.
I am learning to be dogged. How to do the work and keep doing it. I could have given up on the spot when I first came back to writing; I was raw and afraid and had only a few tablespoons of faith left in myself. I was met with a willing guide. In the MFA, I have a community that recharges my reserves and opens me to the different ways we are all in and of the world. It gives me people to show up for; we keep each other going.
* * *
Ultimately, I’m left with plain old disappointment. Uninspired. Even Christopher Frizzelle’s follow up “An Interview with Ryan Boudinot About His MFA Piece That Blew Up the Internet” serves up more of the same: Boudinot irritated “legions of lazy aspiring writers” and that the people who are glad he’s no longer teaching represent “certain corners of the Internet who struggle with reading comprehension.”
Both pieces read like satire, but Boudinot’s words (and to a lesser extent Frizzelle’s) are salt in tender and well-cultivated wounds. And they’re not some water cooler steam venting session; these are published. It makes me wonder: do I want entry into this clubhouse?
I don’t begrudge Boudinot, or think his tasteless joke about “suffering” in the context of sexual abuse are grounds for dethroning him from the Seattle City of Literature work. And shaming him just seems more of the same old same old that’s become commonplace in Internet culture. But I’m reminded of that video. I’ve worked hard to transform myself from the asshole in that video to the person I wanted to be and knew I was. I’ve learned that it’s important to stand up and voice a different view, to counter the barrage of discouragement and shame that articles like Boudinot’s put out into the world.
* * *
With so much on my plate, I’m stalled. I thought all the morning writing was building the scaffolding I needed to jump back in after taking a couple of months off from my book to adjust to a new work schedule and job, start teaching, and deal with health issues. Turns out, it isn’t as sound as I’d imagined. So I emailed my mentor about the two chapters I was supposed to turn in that day.
“I didn’t get far this weekend in restarting…. I wasn’t worried before, but now I am a little worried. I couldn’t find my way back in. Any suggestions or tips?”
It wasn’t until after I hit send that I remembered Boudinot’s essay; I paused. Momentarily worried about how my 21st Century work and parenting and teaching life got in the way and how I was stuck mid-chapter 7. Then I remembered the man on the receiving end, how kind and encouraging he is, and his voracious curiosity. He responded within the hour.
“What’s the episode or narrative point at which you’re trying to restart? Tell me about it.”
Samantha Claire Updegrave writes creative nonfiction, profiles, book reviews, and poetry. Her work has been rejected by notable places such as The New York Times, Jezebel, Ploughshares, and Brevity. But you can still find her work in The Rumpus, High Country News, Bitch, Crosscut, Literary Mama, and Hip Mama. She teaches prose writing at the Hugo House and is a nonfiction editor at Soundings Review. By day, she is an urban planner, and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her partner, young son, and (sadly just one) cat. You can connect with her on Twitter @scupdegrave.