Today’s Lesson: What’s Missing

August 22, 2016 § 8 Comments

Two recently released creative nonfiction anthologies, Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers (Excelsior Editions, 2016) and I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program (University of Chicago Press, 2015) offer a stunning array of  contemporary creative nonfiction writing, and coincidentally both offer candid interviews with the writers about inspirations, challenges faced, and decisions to fully realize these works. Such frank conversations can lead to teachable moments in the classroom. In this two-part blog post, Jeanette Luise Eberhardy and Debbie Hagan not only examine these anthologies, but also lessons to be learned.

z cnPart One By Jeanette Luise Eberhardy

When I teach creative nonfiction writing to art students, they are most interested in two skills: omission and perhapsing. The skill of omission, examined by John McPhee in an essay in the New Yorker (2015), asks the writer to carefully consider what details are excluded. Art students relate omission to their understanding of negative space—that space on the page that remains after a mark is made. They recognize that marks or thoughts that are omitted may reveal more about the messy business of living. The skill perhapsing also considers what is missing. Perhapsing, introduced by Lisa Knopp in a craft essay in Brevity (2009), gives the writer a way to wonder about circumstances in a nonfiction narrative without making up facts. The word perhaps (or other phrases such as could have been or may have been), signals to readers that the writer has left the realm of direct observation or documented research. Omission and perhapsing allow the writer and reader to explore the space between the known and the unknown in the context of the ever-evolving self. A new book of essays considers the mysterious nature of the vast territory between the known and the unknown: Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers, edited by Jen Hirt and Erin Murphy. In this anthology, the layers of experience are represented in a wide variety of forms including segmented and lyric essays, blog posts and personal narratives, graphic essays, as well as the definition essay. Here I will focus on essays that experiment with using omission and perhapsing to open up writing and to enlist readers’ participation in this conversation on celebrating life.

The complicated work of examining the impact of omission is addressed by writer Faith Adiele in her definition essay, “How to Make Sense of the Postcolonial Nation-State: A Definition Essay Using Material Lifted Almost Entirely from the Internet as Annotated by the Author, Herself a Nigerian American.” Adiele uses material from the internet to examine instances of “cultural appropriation and stolen narratives” on Nigeria. Adiele, born to a Nigerian father and a Nordic-American mother, assesses what is omitted from the definitions of Nigeria by striking a line through the original internet text (and leaving it in her essay). By making explicit the implicit biases, she invites the reader to actively participate in a conversation on the extent of inaccurate information about Nigeria. She creates a more truthful story about Nigeria to preserve diversity with respect for the generations that came before her as well the generations that will follow her.

In the essay “Kestrel Avenue,” writer Cheryl Strayed also explores the relationship between the skill of omission and the on-going nature of shifting perceptions. Strayed compares a newspaper article on a bank robbery she wrote at age eighteen with this essay written twenty-eight years later. The earlier newspaper report left out the fact that her family knew the bank robber. Her eighteen–year­–­old self did not want to admit this knowledge. In the interview following her essay, Strayed identifies the tension between knowing and refusing to know. We know that at the heart of any “refusing to know” is the fear of loss. A few years before the incident, Strayed’s family provided shelter to the bank robber when he was passing through town. What was the loss Strayed did not want to face? Readers may wonder and consider their own peculiar fears around loss and withholding knowledge.  The students that I teach are most interested in Strayed’s last question in the interview: “What role does omission play in truth-telling?”

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Jeanette Luise Eberhardy

The skill of perhapsing also plays an important role in transforming truth into art. In “The Third Step,” Sheryl St. Germain begins her essay on doubt by perhapsing what sort of day it was when her friend’s son was killed on his motorcycle. “A sunny day? Blue skies? Trees budding? First fragile flowers in bloom?” This particular use of perhapsing introduces the humble feeling of not knowing while the writer participates in a funeral service in a church where she no longer believes its creed.  Perhapsing helps to make visible her struggle with conflicting needs: wanting to believe in something, showing compassion for the dead son, respecting the grieving family, and acting with integrity with herself. Perhapsing opens the space to reflect on these conflicting needs. This may be why students acknowledge the impact of perhapsing more than any other skill they learn during my creative nonfiction writing courses.

More subtle forms of perhapsing are shown in the space between word and images in Kristen Radtke’s graphic essay “The City of the Century” where a young woman reflects on photos she and her friends stole from an abandoned cathedral. Through  research on the internet, the main character discovers the photos are from a memorial service for a twenty-four-year-old urban explorer who was run over while trying to take pictures of an oncoming train. Drawn images of ruins of the church, railroad tracks, and the young woman who discovered the photos accompany this text: “I stare at the pictures for a long time to draw conclusions that are not mine to draw.” The space between the panels may prolong the opening of readers’ perceptions and suspend simplistic notions they might entertain about what it means to feel vulnerable in this moment. Together images, words, and the space between panels create an artistic bridge that helps the reader imagine the many layers of this experience. In the interview after the essay, Radtke explains that image, word, and space play off each other and express the feeling that “we don’t always get things right,” which can lead to a “much richer dialogue.” Perhapsing in all its forms offers the opportunity to deepen this dialogue in a more authentic way. And isn’t this what the writer hopes for—a genuine conversation with the reader?

The use of space is also important in the segmented essays in this collection. For example, in Dinty W. Moore’s essay “Tooth and Claw,” compassion is explored in many forms: a neighbor who tenaciously controls the growth of dandelions in her grass (using a sewing scissors) while she cares for her husband who had a massive stroke a few years earlier; the writer’s interest in growing Italian dandelions; the rugged nature of this plant with its important healing properties. The space between each segment in Moore’s essay leaves room for reflection and permits readers to make their own meaning.

While I teach a variety of skills in creative nonfiction writing—using evocative objects for central images, creating mind maps to exercise the skill of conceptual blending, experimenting with sequencing information, and building scenes with dialogue—students have taught me that omission and perhapsing help them to realize and remember this truth: we see more than we understand.  At the end of one semester, a student said, “Now I can look for the skills and techniques in other writing. I especially look for perhapsing to see what it brings to a piece. I like seeing what was added and imagining what was left out.” Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with Writers offers new opportunities to consider the way we hold conversations with our experiences and with our readers.

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Jeanette Luise Eberhardy, PhD, MFA, designs educational experiences for students, artists, and professionals on crafting stories for meaningful work. She has delivered her Storyforth seminars in Egypt, Sweden, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and the U.S. At the 17th Annual Women’s International Conference in Berlin (2014), Eberhardy gave the opening address Your Story Matters to 800 women business leaders. Eberhardy serves as program director, 1st Year Writing, and assistant professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

The Self-Made Amtrak Residency

August 18, 2016 § 22 Comments

You can just see the classical dome on City Hall. There are a surprising number of classical domed municipal buildings within sight of a rail line.

You can just see the classical dome on City Hall. There are a surprising number of classically domed municipal buildings within sight of a rail line.

Last weekend I spoke at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference (round-up post coming!) in Lancaster, PA. It was a fantastic experience full of ideas and inspiration, and I knew I’d want a couple of days to decompress. My next destination was Louisiana, and I took the train.

There is a formal “Amtrak Residency,” where writers are chosen from a pool of applicants to receive a free train trip. I’d considered applying, but the first year there was some dubious language about Amtrak owning copyright in submitted work samples, and last year it seemed like a lot of hoops to jump through for a short residency period. And most of the winners looked either more famous or more social-media-gifted than me. Instead I bought my own trip.

It didn’t start well. I gave up my seat so an older couple could sit together, and went to work in the café car, where I got trainsick while typing and had to stop. The café car closed, and I wandered the length of the train looking for another open seat. Downtown Pittsburgh is no doubt charming before 10PM, but finding a restaurant on a four-hour night layover was tough. The guy next to me in the charmless waiting room spent an hour explaining smart phones to an Amish family, who patiently smiled and nodded while clearly understanding modern technology they were choosing not to use. I felt my bedtime ticking away.

But once on the train to Chicago, tucked up in my “roomette”–basically a bunkbed with just enough room to put on shoes before staggering to the WC in the night–all was forgiven. The rocking of the train really was soothing. The next morning hit the observation car, enjoying huge windows and morning light while working away. Turns out I need to face backward on the train, contrary to all my instincts.

A morning layover in Chicago let me scoot to Walgreens for snacks, and the afternoon-overnight-morning to Texas was gorgeous. There was technically wifi on the train, though I barely used it, and just sitting and thinking was peaceful–I felt meditative watching the world go by. The showers were as clean as a gym’s, and the bedding was comfy. Seating at meals is communal, and I met people who gave me their emails to let them know when my book came out, a lady who’d lived in Istanbul, and a man who was riding every train line across the country as his bucket list. (He recommends the Southwest Chief as the most beautiful route.)

Now, I’m a freelancer with no kids, I live in a country where I don’t have a work permit so I don’t have to hustle back for a job, and my husband is deeply supportive and understanding, so it’s possible for me to say, sure, I’ll randomly take a few more days for myself! which is not everyone’s experience. But if you have a couple of days, consider a self-made mini-residency. You don’t have to pass an application process or bother your references or agonize over which pieces to put in a work sample or guess which dates you’ll be available 18 months from applying. Doing your own can cost less than flying to an established residency.

  • Airbnb makes renting an apartment doable just about anywhere. Pick a place that’s unpopular or small and reasonably cheap. I’m planning on Baku, Azerbaijan because for me it’s a short flight; you might try a landlocked town in a state known for beaches, or a college town during spring break, or a farm community, or the “boring” suburbs of an exciting city.
  • State parks often have cabins to rent at a reasonable price, and during shoulder season can be easier to get a reservation.
  • Bring your own Lysol and rent in one of those seen-better-days mom-and-pop motels along the highway that used to be the main highway before they built the interstate. Bonus points if it’s walking distance from a truck stop. You’ll almost certainly encounter people you can refer to as “denizens” in your essay.
  • Ask your friend who has a vacation house if you can use it. Start with “No is a totally OK answer, but I’m looking for a place to do a three-day mini-retreat to write. Would you ever consider…” Leave the place sparkling and drop off a couple of nice bottles of wine or a restaurant gift card.
  • Off-seasons in general are usually quiet–a ski resort in September, the less-popular part of Cape Cod after Labor Day (try a ramshackle cottage within walking distance of great chowder in Onset, MA).
  • If you have children, see if you can team up with another writer with kids: rent a place for a week. You take the kids for three days, they take them the other three, and in the middle you spend one family day doing something fun all together.
  • Stock up on snacks and don’t be shy about eating out–it’s worth it to open up the mental space that would be spent choosing, cooking and cleaning.

I didn’t actually write very many words on the train. But I found some open spaces in my brain that I needed to write when I got home, and it was wonderful to think over what I learned at the conference. 4/5 stars–recommend.

Have you done a self-made residency? Tell us what worked (or didn’t) in the comments!

 

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Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her new book, Get Published in Literary Magazines: The Indispensable Guide to Preparing, Submitting and Writing Better, is now available on Amazon.

Learning to Care (About Writing and Dogs)

August 17, 2016 § 17 Comments

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Crisis

A word from Brevity‘s new Managing Editor, Jacob Little:

I recently had a health scare that’s resulted in numerous trips to various doctors. In trying to help me with “nutritional rehabilitation,” one of the doctors suggested I get a dog.

“Why would I do that?” I asked him. “The only reason I’m here is because I can’t even take care of myself. What makes you think I can keep another living creature alive?”

“That’s just it,” he said. “If you can get used to caring for something else, you can transfer those skills over to yourself.”

I couldn’t help thinking, Good god. Is everything a metaphor these days?

“It’s a little bit different,” I said, “keeping a dog alive versus myself. I can’t just eat kibble and shit in the backyard.”

“Yes, it’s different,” he said. “But not for the reasons you think. The difference is you’d care whether the dog lived or died, but you don’t care about yourself.”

Jesus, I thought.

So I got a dog. His name is Crisis, both because he has arrived in the midst of my own, and also because he always seems to be having one. He hides and shakes when he sees a spider. He gets scared when the mailman comes. He follows me around like a shivering shadow. He loses his mind with enthusiasm every time he thinks I might charge around the house with him. He senses when I’m lonely and puts his head on my knee. All this and I still can’t decide if my most prominent feeling for him is gratefulness for his companionship or resentment for the amount of time and care he requires. I resent him for making me care.

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Jacob Little

I don’t think this is a character fault of mine. I hope not. There are so many others.

To me, when I am able to acknowledge and consider the frustrations of a person, I’m all the more appreciative of when they are actually able or generous enough to give something back to me. It’s amazing to consider that such faulty, messy creatures can do such beautiful things in our lives. So here’s another metaphor: I feel the same way about writing.

I don’t like writing. Not even close. It’s almost always a fight; a tedious and absurd chore to complete. Most days, it feels to me like a colossal waste of time, an obscene luxury. It seems almost wholly unethical to indulge in such an egocentric pastime. Even the good moments seem to be ones of self-congratulation and self-release. Perhaps these aren’t truly bad things, but neither are they noble.

Like Didion, I too am grateful for all the stories I tell myself in order to live. I just don’t want to pretend that the “stories” in that sentence means something other than “lies”—or perhaps more optimistically: “partial truths.” Still, even a partial truth is dangerous without remembering to scan carefully for the falsehood. After all, the most effective and dangerous lies are the ones that hide themselves amongst otherwise unassailable truths.

I find myself agreeing more and more with Maggie Nelson when she wrote in The Red Parts that “stories may enable us to live, but they also trap us, bring us spectacular pain. In their scramble to make sense of nonsensical things, they distort, codify, blame, aggrandize, restrict, omit, betray, mythologize, you name it. This has always struck me as cause for lament, not celebration. As soon as a writer starts talking about the ‘human need for narrative’ or the ‘archaic power of storytelling,’ I usually find myself wanting to bolt out of the auditorium” (155).

Me too.

But I remain personally grateful for stories all the same. I’m grateful for any and all slivers of truth I can find in them, hollow as they might seem when compared with real experience and human connection. I’m grateful for the ability to communicate something to others in a way that I otherwise could not. I’m grateful for the way writing helps me to process how I feel about ideas, other people, and myself in relation to them.

To play on Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, I think that stories are our absolute worst form of truth-telling, aside—perhaps—from all the other ones.

Here is what I think I’m trying to say. I don’t think acknowledging my deep resentment and suspicion of something harms the love I have for the thing itself; I think it deepens it. I care about writing precisely because I understand its limitations and dangers, what it can accomplish in spite of those faults.

—Keep writing out there.

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Jacob Little steps into the role of Brevity’s Managing Editor later this month (and will still serve simultaneously as managing editor of Profane.) He is a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University, and his recent nonfiction is published or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Split Lip Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and Yemassee, where he won the 2015 Creative Nonfiction Award. You can find him at jacoblittle.net and on Twitter @little_jaycup.

The Ugly Truth: An Advice Column for Nonfiction Writers

August 15, 2016 § 11 Comments

Some pointed advice channeled through guest blogger Anita Gill:

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Anita Gill (aka Ugly Truth)

Dear Ugly Truth,

I want to write a memoir about my childhood, but I can’t seem to do it. Every time I sit down to start writing about it, I freeze up. I can’t put down a single word.

I’m so scared that my family will read my memoir and we will have a falling out. I’ve heard of this happening to many memoirists, and I don’t want to do any damage to my family.

How do I get over this fear and write?

Sincerely,

Writer’s Block

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Dear Writer’s Block,

Ah, the fear before the plunge! There’s so much at stake! You have a story you want to share with the world, and by “world” I’m referring to the 15 sentient beings who still read books. You have a narrator looking back on her past and trying to make sense of everything that happened, and coming to some illuminating reasons.

But what if Aunt Gayle gets upset you mentioned her seventh toe? Or how will your mother feel when you include that one time she forgot to pick you up from school and the Wattersons had to take you to their house and feed you stale crackers from their pantry?

Your paralyzing trepidation is merited. Every nonfiction writer who turns inward must face this. That’s why I’ve made a foolproof plan to help you with the process.

Don’t write the memoir. Ever!

Think about it: no one can get mad at something you never wrote!

Okay, I know my argument might seem extreme, but hear me out. I’m sure you’ve heard Anne Lamott’s quote, “You own everything that happened to you.” A lot of writers like to tote that around as a way to encourage you to write your memoir. The quote might be true, but your parents owned you, too. Cause they made you. Ergo, owning what happened to you means they have to own what happened too. Are you ready to draw out that contract with them? It’s almost as bad as being 30 and signing up with your parents for a Verizon family plan! And you don’t want to get their phone calls at 8 p.m. on a Friday night, complaining that you used up all of their data with photos of dogs in a BabyBjörn. That metaphor might seem drawn out, but I think I made myself clear. Don’t. Write.

You have so much to gain from thwarting your creative faculties. First off, you won’t be thinking about those horrible memories anymore. No sir! Put those away and bury them deep inside. Hold them in like a fart at a business meeting. There will be a time to express those feelings when you’re drunk next Thanksgiving or Kwanzaa. Don’t put your thoughts on paper where the public can read it and relate to the trials you endured.

The second advantage is you will have a lot more free time, so put it to good, productive use. Join a spin class. Learn to bake your own bread. Master a foreign language like Mandarin or Gaelic. Whatever you do, it will be much more rewarding than sitting at home alone all day, eating nothing but dry cereal, staring at a computer screen and writing terrible sentences for a mediocre book that you doubt will ever see the light of day. Why put yourself through all of that torture when Richard Simmons offers aerobics classes at his studio for only 15 dollars. Let me say that again. Fifteen. Dollars. Richard Simmons. Now you have something to talk to your parents about instead of drudging up those harmful memories you’re trying to make sense of.

So don’t write it in the first place! Do what normal people do. Avoid the issue. Binge Netflix. Dress up your cat as historic Civil War generals. That’s so much better than reaching deep down, finding a kernel of truth in this existence and putting it out there. There can’t be any good to come from that.

Sincerely,

The Ugly Truth

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Anita Gill was given this name when she was born so that her grandparents could pronounce it, but they called her “Annie” instead. She teaches English and writing in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet TendencyApeiron ReviewHippocampus MagazineDefenestration, and Eastlit.

The MFA as Calling Card Round-Up

August 12, 2016 § 7 Comments

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Your Helpful MFA Mentor

Last month we ran Emily Smith’s blog post suggesting that the MFA in creative writing was a calling card of sorts, allowing entry into certain corners of the literary world.  The post garnered plenty of  commentary, and a number of follow-up blog posts.  Here they are, all rounded up into one neat package, for your reading pleasure (or to share with your students contemplating a graduate degree):

The MFA as Calling Card, by Emily Smith

The MFA is Not a Calling Card, by Dinty W. Moore

The MFA is Not A Calling Card: The Low-Residency View, by Kevin Haworth

Why the MFA was the Right Choice for Me, by Jayme Russell

The MFA as Friend, by Kelly Green

The MFA as Rampant Careerism, by Matthew Schmeer

No MFA for Me, by Tim Drugan-Eppich

 

 

 

 

No MFA for Me

August 12, 2016 § 5 Comments

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Tim Druggan-Eppich

Tim Drugan-Eppich provides a wry new perspective on our “What Good is the MFA?” series:

I won’t get an MFA because if I’m a bad writer to my core, I might as well fail quickly and heroically — sparing workshops and professors from my mediocre narratives. If I’ve got “it,” I can read, and then emulate what I read. Wasn’t it Macho Man Randy Savage who said “the cream rises to the top?”

I won’t get an MFA because no matter how excellent the suggestions of my peers or professors, I can’t improve until I look at my writing and realize, “Jesus Christ, whoever wrote this is a moron!”

I won’t get an MFA because the classroom is not where I shine. I forget to read other’s work, forget to provide feedback, and then wonder why nobody likes me. Would you want me in your class? No, you would not. I’m a miserable person to have around.

Oh, and also money. MFAs require at least some, and I have none.

So, no more school for me, which is all right. Scooping ice cream isn’t that bad, and without another degree to pay for, it almost covers rent.

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Tim Drugan-Eppich (@timdruganeppich) is mediocre — statistically, the most probable thing to be. He lives in Colorado with several dust bunnies and a toilet that doesn’t quite flush.

No Room, No Time

August 11, 2016 § 3 Comments

It's a small barrel, but at least it's private

It’s a small barrel, but at least it’s private

We’ve been talking a lot lately about the MFA – its power, its lack of power, using the MFA as a place to polish one’s craft, to find a writing community, or as a clear-eyed shot at getting a teaching job. But in every case, the MFA doesn’t stand alone–it’s part of a writer’s life. Sometimes, a life with space and time for writing, sometimes, as Claire Rudy Foster writes over at The Review Review, a life where writing is shoehorned in in snatched moments and guilty time away from the family. Foster sacrificed to go to a low-residency MFA program, and on the first day:

The writer leading the group asked us to go around the table and, as an icebreaker, describe our work spaces. I listened carefully as the others talked about their rooms, studies, studios, and offices. They all had computers. They had privacy. Their children were in high school or older, not still in diapers. When it was my turn, I told the truth: that I wrote, one sentence at a time, with whatever was at hand. That I wrote on the bus with my son on my lap, taking him to day care before I went to yet another double shift. That I wrote on my breaks. That I texted sentences to myself. I told them that I wrote when my son went to sleep at night, staying up an extra hour to crank out the draft of another short story.

They stared at me as though I was an alien. My ears prickled, and my cheeks flushed. I was ashamed of my poverty—ashamed that I couldn’t afford what they had. Finding an apartment with an extra bedroom was beyond my reach. Taking a day off wasn’t an option for me—we needed every penny. And then, I looked at my classmates and realized that, regardless of the comforts they possessed, they were not better writers than me. They had yet to be published, much less finish a long project. They didn’t know how to work at writing. I did. And I was willing to do anything to keep writing—I had to, if I wanted to produce anything at all.

Foster’s situation isn’t uncommon–I know many writers with children, with day jobs, with the responsibility of feeding and clothing and fight-settling a family. Some with supportive partners and some with supportive families and some with very little support at all. Even those of us with time and space are always wishing for more–if only I didn’t have that business dinner, that pile of stories to grade, that friend’s manuscript to read.

But the pressure of fitting our writing into a smaller space and time can be a good thing. As Foster discovered, having to make time meant making time. I probably generated more artistic work faster as a temp, scribbling between faxes, than I do now on a long lazy afternoon. My work model is best when it’s frantic, when there’s no time to second-guess whether or not something’s going to be good–it just has to be done.

Foster’s essay is brave and true–her realization that the pressure helped her make diamonds, that the lack of time meant using her time wisely. There wasn’t space to be precious about her work, or to stop moving forward. There was only enough room to write.

Read the whole essay at The Review Review. And then use your time today–all of it.

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Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her new book, Get Published in Literary Magazines: The Indispensable Guide to Preparing, Submitting…and Writing Better, is now available on Amazon.

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