AWP 2015: Queer Writing Matters

April 3, 2015 § 2 Comments

Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel

From Special Projects Editor Sarah Einstein:

As a young, queer person in a small Appalachian city, I felt isolated and at risk. I could not imagine a world in which I could say what I have just said, that I am queer, and not be in danger for it. And then, as a high school senior, I discovered Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For. There, in the comic strips, were other queer women living not only safe lives, but lives connected to one another. That they had a community shocked me. Until then I had, at best, thought perhaps I could go my whole life without ever being discovered and punished for who I was. Dykes to Watch Out For let me know that this wasn’t the best I could hope for. That there were communities of queer people living full and happy lives as queer people. For a couple of years, these cartoon strip lesbians were all the community I had, but they were enough. They made me less afraid and gave me a future to hope for.

Queer writing matters. One of the reasons Brevity wanted to do the special gender issue is because we understand the importance of finding authors like ourselves when we feel alone in our identities. Another reason is that we think it’s equally important to find authors who are not like us at all, in order be more empathetic people who can look beyond our own experiences.
We urge you to attend some of the queer events at AWP, to support queer writing and queer publishing and queer presence at the conference. Here is a handy list, compiled by the good folk at Lambda Literary. We hope to see you there:  queer-events-at-awp

Welcome to Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

September 30, 2014 § 1 Comment


Karen Babine

A guest post from the founder and editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies: Karen Babine:

Here’s something I’ve learned over the past three weeks, since the first issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies went live:  Google Analytics is my new favorite form of entertainment. In realtime, I can watch how many people are on the site, where they’re located, and how much time they’re spending on each page. When I worked for Mid-American Review and we gave away free copies at AWP, it was a thrill to walk by somebody perched in a chair in a hallway, reading the magazine, flipping the pages, and it was always hard to resist the urge to interrupt and ask what they were reading, what they thought about it. There was a conversation happening between page and reader that I could see—and the same is happening here, even though it’s not paper. Google Analytics is my new version of walking-by-somebody-reading—and this is a good thing.

Assay is designed to be a space where all perspectives on the genre are not only welcomed, but celebrated. Nonfiction is claimed by composition and rhetoric, and literature, as much as it is by creative writing. We have more to gain by talking with each other than we do by insisting on a hierarchy of who owns the fourth genre. The seed idea for the journal came out of the realization of just how much critical work is being asked of our creative writing graduate students, especially in PhD programs, with little published nonfiction scholarship for them to draw on—and fewer opportunities to publish what they produce. The idea of nonfiction studies incorporates more than creative writing workshops; it must include nonfiction-as-literature and nonfiction-as-rhetoric/composition, as well as dedicated space to consider the theory and pedagogy of the nonfiction classroom. Often critical introductions are the only place these discussions happen—I’m thinking of Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, even the state-of-the-art introductions to the year’s Best American Essays—and as a result, they are separate notes, to be played individually. Or, even worse, they are the staccato or tenuto that tells us how the note is to be played, never truly part of the composition.

We take the journal’s name from a quote from Minnesotan essayist Paul Gruchow, who wrote that “There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this.  Places can be claimed but never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained.  You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land.  What you absorb will eventually change you.  This change is the only real measure of a place.” This idea of the essay (to try) and assay (to test) forms the basis for the philosophy of the journal and what we want to see in the work we publish. The goal of Assay is to test and analyze the nonfiction texts we read, to attempt our determinations of their ingredients and quality.

Maybe it’s how my brain works, this core belief that there are many different—and right—ways to explore the questions and curiosities in front of us. Sometimes putting on G.K. Chesterton’s hat feels right—but sometimes, we want to go running after that hat with Derrida or Ursula Heise. We envision Assay to be a space for short pieces that come out of “I never thought about it that way before” moments, musings of the brain on nonfiction subjects and texts that aren’t represented in current publications.  We hear in passing what a colleague is doing in a class, perhaps an old hat like first-year writing or something narrow and specialized, classes we wish we could sit in the back row and observe. Maybe we have heard of Writing Marathons, but we have no idea how to implement them in our classes (stay tuned to the spring issue for this). In another sphere, our TAs often receive excellent pedagogical support for teaching composition, but creative writing pedagogy is much rarer. (It’s a long-term goal to compile a syllabi bank, like ASLE has collated for environmental studies, so look for that initiative in the future.)

A couple of days ago, I posted to Assays blog and asked which volumes of Best American Essays are your favorites—and today, on another Facebook page, Donna Steiner asked who we’d like to see as a future editor. These are the kind of organic conversations that Assay wants to foster, on our blog and discussion boards (as well as Facebook and Twitter), as reactions to what we publish as well as realtime issues and questions within nonfiction studies. (For instance, Derek Hinckley’s Riff on Alison Bechdel appears in our first issue—and Bechdel just won a MacArthur Genius Grant.) To take advantage of these opportunities, we are launching several between-the-issues initiatives, one of which is a dedicated series of guest posts to our blog. Karen Craigo’s guest pedagogy post, on the ethics of teaching your own work, is a good example of what we’re going to be looking for.

Another between-the-issues initiative we’re excited about is our In the Classroom project, and we’re looking to compile pedagogy resources, available to anyone teaching nonfiction, from creative writing to journalism to literature to rhetoric. We are also seeking syllabi for courses in creative writing pedagogy (we are going to be most interested in those geared toward nonfiction, but multi-genre courses are acceptable). We want this to be a community resource, to start and sustain conversations about what we’re doing in the classroom.

Being online gives us a platform to engage with each other in ways that traditional paper does not—though I did not want to lose the link to paper, so we include printable PDFS with each piece we publish. While there’s no way to track how many people read a particular work printed on a book’s page, I can see exactly how many hits a particular page gets and know that 300+ people have read Wendy Fontaine’s article on the neuroscience of memory and its effects on memoir. Ned Stuckey-French’s terrific essay-on-the-essay has (as of this posting) received more than 1800 hits, according to Google Analytics.

So, welcome to the first issue of Assay! We’re very excited about the depth and breadth of perspectives and voices, from traditional literary scholarship to looser forms, from interviews to pedagogy. Submissions are open for the spring issue, which will go live on March 1st, 2015, and there are a lot of truly exciting submissions coming in already—and we hope that you will add us to your list of publishing venues, for yourself as well as for your students. Forward us to colleagues in your department outside of creative writing, whoever might be teaching nonfiction texts. We’re looking for representations that come out of ethnic literature courses, critical theory courses, and other sources of conversations we should all be a part of. If you have a great class discussion, write it up for Assay (or suggest to a student that s/he do so). While we don’t have a firm submissions deadline for the spring issue, January 1st is a good benchmark.

In the meantime, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, subscribe to the magazine on the website. Feel free to let us know what you’d like to see in future issues, how we can better serve your work as a writer and reader, as teachers and students.

MariNaomi on Building a Graphic Memoir

September 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

lizardAn interview conducted by Sarah Einstein:

Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories by MariNaomi, out this month from Uncivilized Books, is a graphic memoir comprised of brief essays drawn and told in a sparse style, but taken as a whole, they create a complex and lovely picture of a life. Many of the vignettes were first published on the online magazine The Rumpus as the series, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

MariNaomi agreed to answer a few questions for Brevity about the work, and I was particularly interested in the ways in which graphic memoir coincides with other forms of brief creative nonfiction and how the author deals with the nonfictional in her artwork.

SE: In a statement in the front of Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories, you say “These stories are memoir, which means that each one is only as true as the author’s memory is reliable.” I’m thinking that veracity must be particularly tricky in graphic memoir. Can you talk about the choices you make both in writing and in design, and whether you feel the need to be more “truthful” in one or the other?

MariNaomi: In 2005, I drew a comic about a dog mauling that occurred in San Francisco that resulted in a woman’s death. I did a ton of research to make sure everything was accurate, reading countless articles and one terribly written book, poring over police crime photos, figuring out the layout of the crime scene. I even drove by the building where the mauling took place. The ten-page comic took almost a year for me to draw, a year of staring at horrific images. It wasn’t a fun year, but I was proud of how accurate the comic was, in the end. But I’ll probably never illustrate someone else’s experience again, as it was terribly exhausting.

For my own stories, I follow my memory paths, and sometimes fill in the blanks by consulting photos, diaries and friends or family who were there. This means that I don’t get nearly as many facts right.

I know that other memoirists are all over the place on this subject. Alison Bechdel, for example, holds the specifics in high regard, whereas Liz Prince has compared memoir to historical fiction. Personally, I want to be completely emotionally honest in my comics, and also convey a time and a place, but the physical details beyond that are unimportant to me. I mean, who cares if I get a date wrong, or if I can’t remember where each Duran Duran poster was placed on my bedroom walls? I’m not on trial, and I’m not a historical figure, so the minutiae seems irrelevant. I do draw the line on fudging experiences, though. I’ll never write that I had an experience that never happened to me.

That said, every time I purposefully alter the truth (like combining characters or incidents in order to tell a more succinct story), I toil over it a lot. And every time I write and draw a story and am later told “That’s not what really happened” by someone else who was there, I feel a little bit ashamed. But you know, everyone sees an event from their own unique perspective, so that’s bound to happen.

SE: So much of this book is about loss–loss of home, loss of love, loss of safety. There are a number of elegiac pieces in the book, such as “What’s New, Pussycat?” “Mr. Vanoni,” and “Coalinga.” I was struck by the grace with which you bring tiny moments to life and how effectively these tiny moments stand in for the longer, fuller life lived and seemed in some ways to be teaching me, as the reader, how to understand the larger work.  How I should see the tiny vignettes from your own life as serving as glimpses meant to stand for the whole. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the craft of building a memoir out of these tiny moments in a way that creates such a beautiful sense of something larger than what is on the page? You have managed that so very well here.



MariNaomi: Thank you! That’s really nice to hear.

A fellow cartoonist once told me that the whole point of drawing was to create an image using the fewest brush strokes or lines possible. I didn’t necessarily agree with his idea in terms of artwork–sometimes lots of lines/detail is the way to go, sometimes a minimalist technique gets the point across better–but I do agree with that idea when it comes to storytelling. And graphic storytelling is a fantastic medium in which to pare down a story. Not all pictures are worth a thousand words, but it’s worth it to me to try to show a reader complex emotions and situations using the smallest of details–a slight smile here, a defeated posture there. Reading a graphic book can often go much faster than a book filled with just words, however I believe that an attentive reader will absorb just as much information in the same amount of pages, if it’s done right. Which is good, because drawing a book takes so much longer than writing one!

SE: I first discovered your work in XOJane, where you published “It Happened To Me: I Was Sexually Harassed On Stage At A Comic Convention Panel.”  Could you talk a little bit about your experience writing for an audience that at least sometimes seems hostile to, or at least dismissive of, people of color, women, and LGBTQ folk? I know you promote the work of LGBTQ and POC cartoonists, and I’d like to know more about that work.

MariNaomi: That panel was a bit of an anomaly for me, as it’s rare for me to interact with the mainstream comics world (my harasser is a writer for DC Comics). I’ve heard that sexism and homophobia is rampant in the indie scene, as well, but honestly, I’ve seen very little of that first-hand. Maybe that’s why I was so shocked by that incident, enough to write an essay about it. (The other harassment I mention in the article also happened with someone I consider a mainstream artist.)

Since that article came out, I’ve met a lot of mainstream comics creators, and overall they’ve been really supportive. But I’ve also gotten a glimpse into a whole lot of sexism and misogyny that I probably wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t stepped forward like that, and I’ve found it very unsettling. It’s kind of similar to what some people have been going through since Ferguson got on the news. Many folks weren’t aware there was still such a problem with racism in this country. If it’s not in your face on a regular basis, it’s easy to forget that it exists.

But I digress.

I’m not writing for a hostile audience of racists and trolls (I couldn’t care less what a misogynist thinks of my work), I’m doing it for people who are open to the experience of others, who want to be better people but maybe don’t always know how to go about it (like me). People who get that compassion is something you have to work at your whole life, and are willing to try (and forgive themselves when they slip into judgment). If you read the “news” or read the comments section in a feminist article, it’s easy to think that compassion is a dying thing. But I don’t think so. I’m keeping the hope alive.

And of course, compassion is the only thing that can kill off ignorant hate. And visibility helps foster compassion, right? That’s what’s at the root of my projects, the Cartoonists of Color database and the LGBTQ Cartoonists database. At first glance they’re just lists of names and links and maybe a little information. But if you delve into it, you can get lost in the work of all those amazing, diverse creators. I get lost in it everyday.

SE:  Graphic memoir and biography seems to do a particularly good job of telling complex, difficult stories. I’m thinking of Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, and of course you. I wonder if you could talk about why the genre is so well-suited to untangling complexity without mitigating or obscuring it. (If that’s too grad school sounding, please reword. I spent an hour trying to make this question less awful. Ten of those minutes were spent trying to decide whether or not to take Spiegelman off the list.)

MariNaomi: I’m not sure that comics are a better way to tell complex, personal stories, it’s just another medium in which to do so. If you delve into the genre of graphic memoir, you’ll find plenty of badly told personal stories, I assure you. And there are many amazingly complex stories that are told in the form of essays, paintings, photographs, music, collage, sonnets, etc.

I’ve been writing about my life in comics form since the 1990s, but autobiographical comics seem to be getting more attention now than ever. I expect the fad will pass eventually, just like any other. But in the meantime, as long it’s popular, we (as memoir-loving readers) are lucky that more creators will be making and publishing quality work.


Sarah Einstein is the Fiction Editor for Stirrings and a PhD student at Ohio University. Her work has appeared in journals including PANK, Ninth Letter, and The Sun and been awarded a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net. Her first book, Mot: A Memoir, is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press and the recipient of this year’s AWP Prize.

How Memoir Saved My Life

July 3, 2013 § Leave a comment


Jennifer Ochstein and her Mom

Brevity contributor Jennifer Ochstein has a moving blog post on Hothouse, recounting the power of writing to reconcile true feelings.  An excerpt here, and then a link to the full piece:

… It took moving a state away, to Ohio, when I was thirty-four before I could begin chipping away the anger encasing me. While I live three hours from her and see her every few months, I speak with her often, most importantly about her memories of being a single lesbian mother. At thirty-eight, I’ve been writing about us based on our memories and current understanding of each other.  

I discovered memoir by accident when I turned thirty-two and enrolled in graduate school to get a master of arts. I took a memoir class, the only class offered that fit my schedule, and found that this subgenre of creative nonfiction was the kind of writing I’d always wanted to do. When I finished the degree at thirty-four, I enrolled in an MFA creative writing program, where a professor suggested I read Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Since then, I’ve been ravenous for memoirs by writers who grew up with gay parents, most recently Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father by Alysia Abbott and The Scientists: A Family Romance by Marco Roth. I needed to see how others reconciled their childhoods, carving out a space for themselves within families and personal histories that secreted a parent’s homosexuality in shame.

Place seems to have as much to do with this shame as the harbored secrets. The smaller, more rural and interior the place, the more shame and secrets. Bechdel’s Tragicomic, whose setting is Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, attests to this. The more revolutionary the city—San Francisco—the more open the relationship between parent and child, evidenced in Abbott’s Fairyland. And though homosexuality in as urbane a place as New York City implies acceptance, it does not presume honesty within a family. This bears out in Roth’s The Scientists.

In outing my mother, I’m in some ways outing myself as a secret keeper and bearer of unnecessary shame

The full essay can be found here in Hothouse.

Why Are Sharks Mean? (On Writing the Kid-Mind)

December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

From guest blogger David Wanczyk, essayist and Ohio University Director of Special Programs:

“Why are sharks mean?” was the question that propelled “The Way Grown-Ups Talk: Adult Narrators, Childhood Stories,” a panel presentation at The NonfictioNow Conference early last month.  The question had been originally asked by the writer Ryan Van Meter’s young nephew, and Van Meter used it to remind us that children aren’t simple (or simple-minded).  Kids, he insisted, are brilliant in an idiosyncratic, unexpected way.  And sharks, he insisted, are, by most measures, mean!

This panel—which also included Michele Morano, Sarah Dohrmann, Elmar Lueth, and John T. Price—brought to mind discussions I’d been having with my own students in our class, “Writing the Family.”  Together, we were reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Sonja Livingston’s Ghostbread, and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, memoirs which, to differing degrees, seek to emulate the thought-processes of children.

Bechdel repeatedly contrasts her adult-voice and her childhood voice to show us how she slowly came to the knowledge of her father’s and her own homosexuality.  Livingston uses short sentences and short chapters to replicate the feeling of dislocation she had during a childhood in which she moved constantly.  But it’s McCourt who seemed most instructive to my students.

In his ubiquitous (but still excellent) tale of growing up poor on both sides of the Atlantic, he rarely if ever strays from the voice of the growing Frankie.  And while Thomas Larson has rightly suggested that “Angela’s Ashes is a triumph of artifice [. . .] that holds back the willfulness and complexity of the adult’s voice,” it’s still useful for emerging writers to look at the specific techniques McCourt uses to construct that child’s voice.

I will list a few of his techniques below with examples from McCourt in the hope that others will add examples from other texts.  Let’s be precise when we talk about the various ways writers recreate the brilliant idiosyncracies of the childhood mind.  And let’s not forget the meanness of sharks.

How the kid-mind gets written :

1.   Kids speak in mostly basic words, but use language they’ve learned from stories and from adults.  The contrast can be hilariously apparent.

“We can’t have tea because the milk is sour in the icebox where the ice is melted again and everyone knows you can’t drink tea without milk unless your father gives it to you out of his mug while he’s telling you about Cuchulain.”

2.   Kids repeat and ramble, especially when overwhelmed.  To emulate this, writers use anaphora (repeated words at the beginning of sentences) and polysyndeton (repeated conjunctions where they’re not necessarily needed).  I think this kind of repetition is often used as a shortcut.  The syntax blasts us with the idea: I was traumatized and can only relate that trauma in breathless bursts.  But that’s a different post.

“My face was wet from his tears and his spit and his snot and I was hungry and I didn’t know what to say when he cried all over my head.”

3.   Kids often misunderstand figures of speech and think very literally.

“[She said] Angela’s mother was spotless, so clean you could eat her dinner of her floor.  I wonder why you’d want to eat your dinner off the floor when you had a table and chair.”

4.   Kids over-generalize in amusing ways.  Here, Frankie McCourt believes that his injured Uncle’s strange behavior represents a universal truth.

“People who were dropped on their heads always worry someone will steal their stout.”

5.   Kids are rarely sentimental.  McCourt often has his childhood self relate the saddest events in the most matter-of-fact ways.  [note numbers 2 and 4 at play in this example as well].

“They put Oliver in a white box that came with us in the carriage and we took him to the graveyard.  They put the white box into a hole in the ground and covered it with earth.  My mother and Aunt Aggie cried, Grandma looked angry, Dad, Uncle Pa Keating, and Uncle Pat Sheehan looked sad but did not cry and I thought that if you’re a man you can cry only when you have the black stuff that is called the pint”

This is just a start.  Some of these may be obvious.  But my attempt this semester was to move beyond the comment, “He sounds like a kid here” and ask what—in the diction, syntax, and rhetoric—created that response.  To isolate and then emulate.

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