Writing the Quotidian

April 15, 2019 § 20 Comments

Iris Print Image 2By Iris Graville

Quotidian.  I read that word in an essay I critiqued during my first semester in my MFA in writing program. I had to look it up.  Ironically, it’s a fancy word for something that’s not, well, very fancy.  Here’s how the New Oxford American Dictionary defines it:

quotidian |kwōˈtidēən|
adjective [attrib.]

  • of or occurring every day; daily : the car sped noisily off through the quotidian traffic.
  • ordinary or everyday, esp. when mundane : his story is an achingly human one, mired in quotidian details.

While this word hasn’t become a regular part of my vocabulary, its meaning resonates for me.  Apparently it does for some other writers as well.

Patrick Madden wrote in praise of “Quotidian Nonfiction” in Issue #44, Spring 2012 – Creative Nonfiction:

I prefer, in both my writing and in my reading, meditative material that considers the quotidian, that pauses and ponders, moving slowly, calmly—the kind of work that would never incite a controversy, work that balances intellect and emotion, with perhaps a bit of spirit.

Madden, an essayist and writing teacher, claims to lean toward quotidian nonfiction “because my own life so rarely excites even me; I could never win over readers through shock or exoticism.”

I know the feeling.  It crops up often for me as I write personal essays and especially did so as I drafted my memoir, Hiking Naked (okay, that might not sound very quotidian, but the title is mostly a metaphor). My life has been shaped by ordinary experiences of birth, loss, work, parenting, friendship, and spiritual seeking. Experiences described by many of the synonyms that the New Oxford lists for quotidian:  typical, middle-of-the-road, unremarkable, unexceptional, workaday, commonplace, a dime a dozen.  In short, “nothing to write home about.”

And yet, I do write about these everyday experiences.  I’m compelled to craft essays about community, listening, patience, simplicity.  I’m led to tell the stories of “ordinary, everyday” people whose voices often aren’t heard.  Patrick Madden attests to the value of such writing:

This, for me, is the placid beauty of the best creative nonfiction writing: the opportunity to settle one’s buzzing mind for a few brief moments, to meditate on a focused subject, to escape the plangent assaults of the beeping, blinking world and find respite in the thoughts of another human being… I think we have a right to (and a hunger for) art that is quieter, more enlightening and uplifting.

Fortunately, an abundance of nonfiction writers create the kind of quiet and uplifting art that many of us yearn for.  One of them, Ana Maria Spagna, was my thesis advisor at the Whidbey Writers Workshop. She taught me in the classroom how to tell my story through well-crafted scenes, settings, and characters, as well as through her own “quiet” writing (such as her essay collection, Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness).

Another is Scott Russell Sanders, who I studied with one summer at Fishtrap on the Zumwalt Prairie in northeastern Oregon. I had met Sanders at my first residency in my MFA program and have become a devoted reader of his writing. Work that springs, as he explains in Writing from the Center, from accepting “the material that my life had given me, and… learning to say as directly as I could what I had to say.”

 Also on my list of quotidian writers are Kathleen Dean Moore , Brian Doyle, and Brenda Miller. All of them practice what Madden urges:

 …each of us, I dare say, can do with a little more wonder in our lives, can benefit by shunning the artificial and superficial to spend more time contemplating the quotidian miracles that surround us.

What quotidian miracles surround you? Perhaps it’s time to write about them.
___

Iris Graville is the author of three nonfiction books: Hands at Work, BOUNTY, and a memoir, Hiking Naked. She lives on Lopez Island, WA where she publishes SHARK REEF Literary Magazine, writes essays and blogs, and teaches. Sometimes you’ll find her on the interisland ferry, working on a new essay collection about the Salish Sea, climate change, and Washington State Ferries.

Kiese Laymon Judges 2019 New Ohio Review Nonfiction Contest

April 12, 2019 § 1 Comment

mississippi-body2By Madison Foltz and David Wanczyk,

We are thrilled to have award-winning memoirist Kiese Laymon as the judge of our 2019 New Ohio Review nonfiction contest. The deadline is April 15. The winner will receive $1000, and this year we are happy to announce that two dozen honorable mention pieces—spread across poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—will be published either in our print magazine or online at newohioreview.org. All entrants receive a one-year subscription.

In his frank, powerful new memoir, Heavy: An American Memoir, Laymon writes about his American experience, about pains both physical and cultural. And as the memoir’s title implies, much of the book deals with Laymon’s struggles with body image.

Martha Anne Toll writes in her review of Heavy for NPR, “Laymon intersperses stories of friends and girlfriends and teachers and books with a narrative about food—both its attraction and revulsion. His body is a character in this memoir, the body of a black man, objectified by the culture, threatened and threatening because of America’s long, ugly history of racial oppression.”

Laymon explores his childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, which was filled with violence, familial betrayal, and beatings, alongside his later expulsion from Millsaps College, a gambling addiction, his eventual graduation from Oberlin, and his battle against racism. Throughout his story, he also links his own writing and struggles to those of authors like Toni Cade Bambara and Richard Wright. Like their work, Heavy is intense, powerful, important. And it’s difficult to read at times. It’s not only the story of a black male body trying to find its place in America, but also the story of all the reasons why that place may never be found. Laymon, with a pulsing, melancholic, hurt-but-indomitable voice, highlights how personal demons and toxic behavior can form a maelstrom within us that can keep us from thriving. “The nation as it is currently constituted,” he writes, “has never dealt with a yesterday or tomorrow where we were radically honest, generous, and tender with each other.”

We are excited to work with Laymon because he is offering that kind of artistic reckoning.

A professor of creative writing and English at the University of Mississippi, Kiese Laymon has authored a full-length novel, Long Division, and a collection of essays titled How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. His reviews, essays, and stories have appeared in publications such as Vanity FairOxford American, and LitHub, among others. His writing is characterized by razor-sharp observation and reverberant-colloquial eloquence that also exposes his deepest vulnerabilities. And Heavy is an example that pulls no punches.

Please submit your pulls-no-punches essay. Your radically honest memoir. Your generous, tender-funny hybrid form. Your unignorable short-short. Laymon, we think it’s fair to say, has been through plenty. We know he will be excited to see your story.
___

Madison Foltz is the New Ohio Review intern and David Wanczyk is editor of New Ohio Review.

A Review of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style 

April 12, 2019 § 15 Comments

brownBy Nancy Kay Brown

I am reading this morning and find myself delighted with this dear book. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer.

Yes, I called it dear. A language usage book? I thought I’d read and mark and set it aside, but it’s not that kind of grammar, usage, style book. Its a book of stories from a copy editor, a job that I would never, could never, do, but today appreciate with new eyes and ears. Listen to this, “As one of my colleagues once described it: You’re attempting to burrow into the brains of your writers and do for, to, and with their prose what they themselves might have done to, for and with it had they not already looked at each damn sentence 657 times.” So true. We need those fresh eyes, with smart minds like his attached.

We do need to expose what we write, whether it be a blog, a letter, oh my, or email, report, or story, to others’ eyes and minds. A proofreader locates errors in punctuation, spelling, word usage, grammar, and format. My mother has always been mine, whether invited or not. She can’t help herself. Yet, a copy editor seems to do it all. The copy editor has to know the piece, listen to the tone and voice, and select better ways to say something, different words and phrases, using the writer’s style and tone. The copy editor can be a change maker, a deal breaker and a heart breaker too. Mr. Dreyer tells stories of arguments on the page between writers and copy editors, including one writers response, scrawled in the margin next to a copy editor’s suggestion: “write your own fking book.” I would never do that, or would I?

The thing I want to tell you, before I get back to my Dreyer, is that in Chapter 1, he presents us a challenge. Go one week without using, he clarifies, not while talking, but writing, these 12 words or phrases:

very
rather
really
quite
in fact
just
so
pretty, as in, “pretty tedious”
of course
surely
that said
actually

He calls them Wan intensifiers and Throat clearers. I’m going to try it for a week. See any in that list that you overuse or hold precious or maybe want to dump? I am guilty of a few; especially troublesome is “ just.”

I heard an interview with Dreyer on NPR and he suggested that we surely must figure out a better way to make a point. Shall I try?  Instead of “just” I will use only, solely, merely, be more clever, clearer. My week starts now.

Benjamin (I became a first-name friend after merely two chapters!) is fine with a reader closing his book after his challenge, once accepted. I continue reading, though. I am enjoying his conversational tone, shared delight with language, and the assurance I get from him. He’s on my side, our side, to assist us in being the best we can be by sharing his insights, magic, and not so magic tricks.

I have so much more to tell you, but let Benjamin do it. I can hardly wait for Chapter 12, The Trimmables. He wrote that for me.

Thank you, Benjamin Dreyer. Random House found a gem in you, sir. Thank you for caring enough to have this conversation with us.

__
Nancy Kay Brown recently completed Fallen From the Nest for the third time: a memoir about a grandmother raising the children of her son, from whom she’s fallen out of love. Her stories and essays appear in Brain, ChildFull Grown People and an anthology for rural youth, Fishing for Chickens, edited by Jim Heynen. Her blog, Letters to Montana, is available at NancyKayBrown.com

Just Like the Cool Kids

April 11, 2019 § 6 Comments

After our attempt to create viral cat videos ended in editorial lacerations…after trying to make “fetch” happen…after our unfortunate experience with twerking (Dinty’s back will heal soon!), Brevity has finally become cool.

We got on Instagram!

Brevity posts writing moments and thought-provoking images. We’ll also be seeking writers for short term Insta-takeovers of image series with accompanying text. (If you’re interested, slide into our DMs!)

Why Instagram? As Twitter becomes politically challenging and Facebook brings out the family racists, Instagram has remained relatively sane and relaxing. Creators are sharing meaningful images and carefully crafted words in a supportive community. Captions are becoming flash nonfiction. Writers are connecting with a lively community of readers and fellow wordsmiths. Celebrity book clubs share novels and memoirs with vast audiences who want to be part of a literary community. Instagram readers are becoming daily more sophisticated, more visually-attuned, and more willing to spend a moment with beautiful words.

We want to reach our readers where they are. Thank you for visiting the magazine and blog online, welcoming us into your inboxes, engaging with our tweets and participating in the Facebook group. Thank you for saying hi at writing conferences and reviewing Brevity authors’ books on Amazon and Goodreads.

Instagram is one more place to share a small part of your literary journey.

Won’t you join us?

PS – for Insta-takeover requests, please contact us on Instagram, that way we don’t lose your message!

A Review of Paul Crenshaw’s This One Will Hurt You

April 10, 2019 § 3 Comments

41AzZSPQYzL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgBy Debbie Hagan

A melancholic thread runs through Paul Crenshaw’s collection of narrative essays, This One Will Hurt You, set in the Ozarks, specifically northwest Arkansas, where the writer grew up. He opens with “After the Ice,” remembering his eighteen-month-old nephew who cried in the arms of his “stepfather, who looked frustrated or angry or even lost,” but would quiet when the writer, young and inexperienced in comforting babies, had held him. This memory sticks with him, haunts him, probably always will, knowing now the baby died from being shaken by his stepfather.

“… what is left is a deeper feeling than sadness,” he writes. “But it is less painful. It is like the trees in November, or birdsong before first light; something intangible, full of heartache; a child’s clean smell, a faint memory of your mother, a daughter’s first step.”

Crenshaw weaves poignant images throughout these essays, capturing beauty, mystery, and pain embedded in the hills and streams of the real Ozarks—not Netflix’s made-up version with characters one-step removed from the Beverly Hillbillies, now re-fashioned into con artists and grifters. Netflix’s Ozark isn’t even filmed in the Ozarks, but in Georgia.

Crenshaw takes us to the real place where a pregnant kindergarten teacher plays classical music to her unborn fetus by placing headphones on her abdomen during naptime; where a ghost haunts an abandoned tuberculosis hospital; and where a fifth grade fire-and-brimstone teacher tells the whole class, you’re all going to hell.

This is the Ozarks that I know, the place where my ancestors claimed land under the Homestead Act of 1862 and built their farms. Most of my family still live in this rural, rocky, and somewhat isolated region (a little northeast from where Crenshaw grew up). The bustling little communities that once dotted the hillsides have turned into ghost towns, due to recessions, factory shutdowns, and tighter government regulations on small farmers. People who live in the hills and down rocky, dusty roads, tend to be stubborn, hardworking, self-sufficient, and adept in dealing with adversity. They grow their own food, raise cows, pigs, and chickens, can vegetables, bake bread, sew quilts, and barter for whatever else they need.

“Those who stay here are forced to try to make a living where there is no living to be had,” writes Crenshaw (who left the Ozarks for North Carolina eleven years ago). In “The Night Before Christmas,” he returns to northern Arkansas and is alarmed to see so many burned-out houses—crystal methamphetamine labs.

“Since 1998, in Missouri, only a few hundred miles from my hometown, police have seized 12,354 meth labs, 251,000 pounds of solid waste, and 118,000 pounds of toxic waste,” he writes. “…thousands of houses are sold without the buyers being aware the houses were meth labs.”

Curiosity prompts him to track down five government-seized meth houses. He discovers three have fallen or burned down, but two remain and have toys and bicycles strewn across the yards. “Thirty percent of seized labs have children living in them,” he writes. “In some states, over 50 percent of children in protective services come from meth seizures.” The harsh chemicals soak into the walls and flooring. What long-term effects this has on children remains unknown. However, Crenshaw, who has his own kids, worries about them.

If poverty, remoteness, and drug abuse don’t pose enough of a strain on this region, add the weather, which can seem biblical at times. In “Cold,” he writes:

The summer heat could knock you senseless, suck all the air out of your breath, and in spring, storms whirled up every evening, sending tornadoes out into the lightning-struck night, but when I think of winter I remember the constant cold, the chill air that came down from Canada to frost the fields and sheath the trees in ice. Wind whistles in the chimney, and we’d huddle close to the fireplace for any warmth left lingering in the stones.

While snow isn’t a big problem here, the ice can glaze everything, turning highways into skating rinks, breaking the trees, seeping into the shingles, pulling down phone and powerlines, leaving rural people isolated for weeks.

Yet, Ozarkians soldier on, an attitude Crenshaw demonstrates in the final essay. He and some of his buddies get together on Sunday to relax, drink beer, and watch football. Yet, they’re unable to let loose and really relax between the drunken couple across the street brawling in the front yard to another neighbor making crack deals to a feral dog stalking a kitten across the backyard.

“This One Will Hurt You,” warns Crenshaw, and he’s not kidding. I’m not going to give anything away here. However, I will say, the writer has to make a devastating choice, and others may criticize how he handles it. Yet, he turns this around, practically confronting readers, So, what would you do? Truth is, we want to believe we’ll never face life-and-death moments.

“I don’t remember if we said any words or not,” he writes in the conclusion. “I doubt they would have meant anything. We are shameful creatures, scared of death…. We stood in the gathering darkness and drank, trying to forget, which I can tell you for sure never works.”

Crenshaw searches the soul and wrestles with hard realities and bitter truths, and his essays will cling, fast as a burr.
___

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and visiting lecturer at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. Her essay “Gargoyles” will appear in the upcoming anthology Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment (Mountain State Press).

The Writing Conference in Your Living Room

April 9, 2019 § 4 Comments

“That’s it, Bob! I need to re-order the material thematically instead of chronologically!”

Not everyone gets to AWP, and even those who did can be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the event. How much you take home in professional growth is often tied to your willingness to self-promote and talk to strangers, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Even smaller writing conferences mean spending on registration, airfare, hotel and food, which quickly adds up.

If only there was somewhere to get expert writing and publishing advice and make professional connections…but in pajamas, and with coffee that didn’t cost $8.

That time has come.

Many of you attended Village Writing School’s online Memoir Summit last year, watching agents, coaches and writers giving prerecorded interviews and presentations on writing and selling memoir. One of the things that struck me was how many genuine professional connections were built: writers connected through the event’s Facebook group; agents and editors offered to respond to queries specifically from attendees. And it was all free!

April 25-29, Village Writing School presents a Literary Agent Summit, covering trends in publishing, first-page tips and tricks, reviews of real queries and first pages, how to make your book stand out in the slush, and more. Maybe you’re not yet at the submission stage, but demystifying the agent-getting process and learning about publishing means that later, you’re not going to type “The End” and then say “Um….now what?” Plus, I’ve often had key realizations about my manuscript when I try to recast an element as an agent suggests—I may not use their literal suggestion, but trying an idea always open doors.

As with last year’s memoir summit, the Literary Agent Summit will be free online for a week before becoming a pay-per-view. During that week, you’ll be able to watch the interviews and presentations wherever you are, whenever you like.

Speakers include:

  • Katharine Sands at Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency
  • Jennifer Grimaldi at Chalberg & Sussman
  • Madelyn Burt at Stonesong
  • Jennifer Unter at The Unter Agency
  • Laurie Chittenden at Tessler Literary Agency
  • Emily Keys at Fuse Literary
  • Eric Myers at Myers Literary Management
  • Andy Ross at The Andy Ross Literary Agency
  • Amaryah Orenstein at GO Literary
  • Kelly Peterson at Rees Literary Agency
  • Lynnette Novak from The Seymour Agency
  • Leslie Zampetti from Dunham Literary, Inc.
  • Editor Nettie Finn from St. Martin’s Press
  • Editor Melissa Singer from Tor/Forge

There’s also an option to add a paid query or first page review, a pitch critique, or a 15-minute meeting with an agent.

Village Writing School has grown quite a bit from its small Northwest Arkansas beginnings, and now reaches writers all over the world with free and affordable online courses and content. So many of us can’t dash off to every conference we’d like to—take advantage of this collection of industry experts dashing over to you.

Register here.

__________________________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Make a Splash! Career Advantages of Taking a Dump on Joan Didion

April 8, 2019 § 12 Comments

Ross_West_075

Photo by Jack Liu

By Ross West

Is this thing on?

[Tapping on microphone]

Okay, welcome, welcome everybody—nice to see such a good crowd. The subject of my talk today is Farrah Abraham. You may remember how she rocketed to fame as a participant on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant.  She followed-up with appearances on Teen Mom, Teen Mom OG, Couples Therapy, Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars Family Edition, and Celebrity Big Brother.

Now twenty-seven, her indefatigable commitment to cultivating and leveraging her name, her celebrity—her brand, if you will—is simply breathtaking. What I’m here to tell you is that Farrah Abraham should be a role model and an inspiration for every writer attending this conference. This is true whether you are promoting a book, building a platform, or curating your career.

Just this month Abraham added “book critic” to her already impressive résumé with a review of Joan Didion’s groundbreaking Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Demonstrating the attention-getting panache of P.T. Barnum, Abraham titled her review, “Joan Didion is a Gin-drinking Bore Who Writes Convoluted Books.”

[Audience gasps and hisses]

I should add—

[Booing continues]

People, please. I should add, this piece was not written on spec—a practice painfully familiar to many of you fledgling self-promoters. No, Farrah Abraham was commissioned to write the piece—by Penthouse magazine.

[Audience groans]

I can see the name of that publication has some of you fidgeting in your seats. But let me remind you of a few authors who were glad to have their work appear in Penthouse: James Baldwin, Isaac Asimov, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, and Phillip Roth.

Abraham is not without a certain amount of her own literary credibility. Her memoir, My Teenage Dream Ended, was a New York Times e-book bestseller. How many of you can say that?

[Indistinct comment shouted by an audience member]

0305-farrah-abraham-joan-didion-tmz-getty-4Yes, I agree, it was absolute garbage. Her review of Didion’s book is even worse. As if Abraham is completely unfamiliar with the concept of an essay collection, she’s stumped as to why the pieces jump “from year to year, often for no rhyme or reason. The non-linear structure confuses me. I had to wonder, ‘Was Didion even trying when she wrote this junk?’”

[Audience gasps and jeers]

Yes, junk. Ahem. And then there’s this: “If you’re looking to find out what not to do as a writer, this is a great book for you.”

[Groans and hoots]

Look, I don’t disagree with you. Let me come right out and say it: Abraham doesn’t have, and never will have, the literary talent of Joan Didion’s toenail clippings.

[Cheers]

But that is not the point.

Now please, people, can we all get off our artsy-fartsy high horses and get down to business?

Here’s the bald-faced fact: Success in this today’s publishing world is all about ambition.

So how do we learn from a fantastically successful self-promoter like Farrah Abraham?

Has writing your book landed you an interview? If so, great. But how can you make that interview work for you? In other words, ask yourself this: What would Farrah Abraham do?

Research shows that the more times a prospective buyer is exposed to your book’s name, the more likely she will remember it, google it, and buy it. So when the interviewer asks you a question, keep in mind the writer’s eleventh commandment: Thou shalt take every opportunity to flog thy book. Commit to memory such phrases as “As I talked about in my book…” and “I devoted a whole chapter in my book to that…”

Listen to how smoothly Abraham does it: “When you need a book to read and ponder your drug problems, pick up a Didion essay collection. If you’re looking for a book that discusses real issues, you are better off picking up my memoir, My Teenage Dream Ended. My life story is closer to the truth of life.”

[Sneering, derisive laughter]

Yes, it’s appalling, grotesquely so . . . and it’s brilliant. Don’t forget, her book came out in 2012—seven years ago. But she’s still out there hustling the merch.

Let me be blunt: If you want to build your platform, if you want to blossom your career, sell books, and make money, you need to hold these truths to be self-evident: The race doesn’t go to the talented, or the clever, or the crafter of the most elegant lines since John Milton. The prize goes to the most aggressive promoter.

What matters is visibility, publicity; any and all attention you can generate in print, radio, television, podcasts, and blogs—exploding across social media with the attention-getting energy of a lightening bolt.

Abraham knows this in her bones. Her formal education is an associate’s degree from a defunct cooking school, but when she saw an opportunity to crap on one of the literary titans of the past hundred years did she hesitate? Not for one second. She’s a minnow calling a whale puny. That, ladies and gentlemen, is audacity.

And does she allow herself to be hobbled by some misplaced sense of humility? No! She’s riding the galloping stallion of her career and she’s giving it the spurs for all she’s worth.

[Audience grumbles]

If Farrah Abraham is anything, she’s shameless—a quality I suggest you nurture. And if you don’t already have the word careerist in your vocabulary, add it immediately, apply it to yourself, wear it as a badge of honor.

Any of you have a problem with that?

Another of Abraham’s skills: she thinks laterally. She accompanied the release of her memoir with a tie-in album of her music—one song for each chapter in the book. Pure cross-promotional genius. Farrah Abraham: TV star, best-selling author, literary critic, and accomplished musician. Has a nice Renaissance-woman ring, doesn’t it?

farrah-abraham.jpgIn point of fact, the reviews of her record were brutal; one used this phrase: “the most horrible combination of sounds to ever be assembled in the history of audio recording.” Doesn’t matter. Self-promotion is not a rearview mirror enterprise. What matters is what’s new and what’s next.

So ask yourself this: What am I going to do and how far am I willing to go? Abraham went all in, starring in the adult films Farrah Superstar: Backdoor Teen Mom and Farrah 2: Backdoor and More. You might not want to promote yourself quite so, well, nakedly. But people, one way or another it’s all about exposure. You need to act and act aggressively. Your books are not going to sell themselves. Your career is not going to spontaneously generate.

Let me leave you with this thought. Being a writer is, first and foremost, about pushing, plugging, hyping, branding, merchandizing, and in every other possible way advertising your work and yourself. It’s not a career for the timid.

Thank you.

Are there any questions?
__

Ross West earned an MFA at the University of Oregon, where he worked for nineteen years as science writer and editor of the research publication Inquiry then as senior managing editor of the university magazine Oregon Quarterly (circ. 95,000). His essays have been anthologized in Best Essays NorthwestIllness & Grace, Terror & Transformation; and The Best of Dark Horse Presents. They have also appeared in Oregon Quarterly, the Portland Oregonian, and the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. Recent publications include an excerpt from his novel in Embark (October 2018) and a short story in Spank the Carp (February 2019). He served as the text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and the Atlas of Yellowstone.

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