April 4, 2019 § 20 Comments
By Alexa Weinstein
I TRIED TO WRITE DOWN SOME OF THE GREAT THINGS WRITERS SAID
James Richardson said the short form is like math homework where you don’t have to show your work, you just have to give the answer. He was quoting someone else. Nona Caspers said Lydia Davis surrendered to the way her brain works, which is a kind of rebellion. Kimiko Hahn talked about how, somewhere in a haiku, the language has to wildly explode. Elena Passarello named a few ways to let the audience/reader know the piece is over: you can create a narrative ending or a rhythmic ending, or you can go cosmic (Thelma & Louise, Between the World and Me). James Richardson said most endings are too ending-y, and you should try every line you already have instead of trying to come up with one.
Michael Steinberg said student nonfiction writers deny themselves reflection, speculation, self-interrogation, projection, digression, and confession, even though that’s where the action is. Ana Maria Spagna said we tell readers which things we care about most by describing those things in depth, using accurate visual details. Phillip Lopate said what he meant by an intelligent narrator was an intelligent presenter of the self who proves trustworthy—not as a human being, but as a truth-teller. This requires maturity, which can be developed through extensive reading, which we shouldn’t be afraid to write about (the books we read, not the maturity). In the meantime, while we’re still growing up, bluffing is acceptable. Yi Shun Lai said our reflection on the page should avoid being static, and our speculation should aim to be transparent; it’s okay for both of them to be I-driven, and to stay unsettled.
Sara Jaffe invited us to deliver the gift of wildness. Jonathan Lethem said Robert Musil referred to his book The Man Without Qualities as “a half-finished bridge into free space.” Righteous! Leni Zumas described our strange, wild, private interaction with texts, and our devotion to them, as incredibly difficult to translate and share. In response, people around the room made that noise.
I GOT TIRED AND STARTED WRITING DOWN PHRASES I LIKED WITHOUT WORRYING ABOUT WHO SAID THEM*
(*when people were talking, not reading their work aloud)
who you’re telling • what you stumble on • when we break them • where you came to • why the edges
how it made me feel • how many pages
a whole human estate • a few lines is fine • a list of limbs • a toss in the air
in dialogue with the story • in a small town • in which I was complicit
not containable • not as concrete • not resolve the questions • not made of craft
the larger pattern • the slow fuse • the embarrassing • the line between • the only sensitive one • the one other thing • the unsayable • the falling away
no long speeches
as the plane crashes • as I learned to write
so weird and unique • so enchanting
for the picture • for the end • for taking it
like a sentence • like lying down
to stand in front of • to bank your understanding • to break open the narrative • to blur the line • to be on fire • to be in the world • to be ashamed • to hand this over
more silence • more attention
wants to arise
I PERIODICALLY LEFT THE CONVENTION CENTER TO ROAM MY OWN CITY
At PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art), I dipped multi-colored carrots in fancy hummus and peeled a tangerine while enjoying a confusing tribute. Sometimes people were performing the poems of Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, and other times they were reading from their own books published by the Waldrops at Burning Deck Press. It wasn’t always clear which was which and nobody ever said their own name. In front of me, a kid who was maybe four licked her hands and did her best imitation of a cat. It might have been a dog, though. I’m not great at telling animals.
At Powell’s, I sat between two beloved friend-geniuses, Wheels Darling and Moe Bowstern, for a queer reading called Femme Force: Wendy C. Ortiz, Amber Dawn, Barrie Jean Borich, Larissa Lai, Ariel Gore, and SJ Sindu. I loved this event so much that I can’t really talk about it yet. My devotion is wild and untranslatable.
On the giant tour bus used as the AWP shuttle, I completed two 90-minute loops, running into 11 hotels on each loop to check if somebody was getting on. Usually nobody was. The driver and I talked traffic. The sun was out; I was moving. For this volunteer work, I got the whole conference for free.
At Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, I sat where I like to sit, on the stairs. Books in Arabic were stacked by my feet. I thought about looking at English and seeing only lines and shapes. I thought about myself as a stack of books, sitting on a staircase. The poets from Nightboat Books came on. Allison Cobb described the trees of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn as a net of breathing. Eleni Sikelianos talked about poems as unsearchable engines, a secret hiding place where we can still put things and keep them private. jayy dodd asked us to say HERE and then say NOW, in between each poem, and it turned out I really liked doing this. She wore an amazing purple cape and read a poem that did tremendous things with its hands.
At the Doubletree hotel, I met up with my poet friend Judy Halebsky for the last time. We dipped into the reception for our MFA program and caught up with the only person there I still knew. It was nice to be remembered. Then we went upstairs and sat outside her room, where we could listen for the crying baby while we talked. You can see Mt. Hood & Mt. St. Helens from up there. We could see all the way to 1996. Walking home, I had giant orange sky until the end. I couldn’t tell the difference between the poem/story part and the part that was just human life.
Alexa Weinstein writes, edits, and teaches in Portland, Oregon and can be found online at alexaweinstein.com. Her writing appeared in Essay Daily’s “What Happened on June 21, 2018” project. She has performed her work at Dominican University, Portland Poetry Slam, Northwest Magic Conference, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center (zine release party for XTRA TUF 6.5) and is currently working on a book of essays for live performance.
March 6, 2014 § 7 Comments
An AWP panel report from Jennifer Ochstein
Exposure is risky, a little embarrassing, but part of the contract. It’s not simply dropping your robe to reveal a bare shoulder or allowing strangers a peek at your thigh. Creative nonfiction requires a stark naked pose.
As panelist Dinah Lenney put it during the Saturday afternoon discussion, The Naked I: Nonfiction’s Exposed Voice, the creative nonfiction writer has to “get naked, stand up and turn around. Slowly.” The effect might cause some to avert their eyes, others to be overcome with desire or jealousy or revulsion, but the authenticity of the exposure is crucial. Without it, creative nonfiction might as well disappear into the self-help section of the bookstore and call it quits.
The creation of the panel stemmed from Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, edited by Margot Singer and Nicole Walker. In it, Singer points to the self-reflective narrative voice that is the living ‘I’, the body of the author. There is no objectivity, only an odd, bracing mix of hubris and humility. While Singer could not attend the discussion, panelist Judith Kitchen explained that the narrative stance in creative nonfiction profoundly influences the voice of the writer. “Creative nonfiction creates a complicit contract with the reader,” Kitchen said. “The voice represents a self so close to the inner self it’s like hearing yourself in the mirror.” That voice is the “stamp of the individual in a world of conformity,” she said. It asks, “Who am I,” in that world and how to find that self within the community.
While the panelists, who also included Barrie Jean Borich, Paul Lisicky, and Ira Sukrungruang, offered up stale dictionary definitions of voice, they proved how useless those definitions are in helping young writers discover their own voices. Sukrungruang, who teaches at the University of South Florida, tells his students they each have at least five voices. By way of example, he points toward his own: French, Thai, Thai-lish (his family language, a blend of Thai and English), the private language between him and his lover, the safe, professional language he uses with his colleagues at university, and the “insecure fat voice” of a man who struggles with weight. Each voice reveals a separate piece of him, but they are wholly him. Those voices are always evolving, different within each narrative journey because each deserves a unique hearing.
Borich referred to this evolution as resistance and desire of the push and pull patterns that present themselves within each narrative. But how to explain it, asked Lisicky? To him, the beauty of exposure is not the full, naked body. The sexiest bodies, he said, are in different stages of undress and concealment.
Creative nonfiction is not a vanishing act, Lenney insisted. “I don’t write to disappear. I write to locate myself.” That location may be as mother, writer, teacher, wife, friend, or other. Locating herself in the narrative allows her to use language to sing for her reader. And perhaps this is where the paradox of the Naked ‘I’ unveils itself. While Lenney said she only feels authentically present in the creative nonfiction genre, she can control the impression readers have of her. “I don’t want to fool you,” she said. “I only want to sing for you in the key of my choosing, the best way I know how.”
Jennifer Ochstein is a writer and teacher who lives in the Midwest. Her work can be found at Brevity, Connotation Press, Hippocampus Magazine, and Hothouse Magazine as well as in The Lindenwood Review and Evening Street Review. Follow her blog at jenniferochstein.com.
March 20, 2013 § 4 Comments
From Brevity contributor and VIDA-issue co-editor Barrie Jean Borich:
Midway through the writing of my memoir-essay hybrid Body Geographic (University of Nebraska Press/ American Lives Series 2013) I became obsessed with maps, so much so that I came to consider my book a variety of map art—my own quirky attempt at counter-mapping my American body against the “true and accurate atlas” any woman of my place and generation was supposed to follow. Yet this project did not begin in the literal form of an atlas. Rather this writing began as fragmented essays about the intersections of place and the body, most particularly the juncture of my body and the far southside Calumet Region of Chicago inhabited by both sides of my family for as long as they have been Americans.
Maps don’t solve the mystery of why environment and human longing are so intricately intertwined, but something of the way maps bring together embodied landscape, documentary inquiry and artistic subjectivity has worked to enhance, and make corporeal, my understanding of all my places. Similarly, the act of lyric and narrative mapping brings me closer to an understanding familiar to any personal essayist or memoirist, which is that renderings of the self are no more than attempts or—as critical cartographer and map artist Denis Wood describes maps—propositions. The best we can do as literary artists is map in a manner that embodies the invisible beauty of spatial comprehension. The four-minute slide show below is an “atlas” of the maps, map-like images and quotations I included in Body Geographic, along with the captions I wrote to both contextualize the images and cast them as another kind of essay, woven through the length of the book.
Excerpted from Body Geographic by Barrie Jean Borich by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2013 by Barrie Jean Borich. Available wherever books are sold or from the Univ. of Nebraska Press 800.848.6224 and at nebraskapress.unl.edu. For more information on Barrie Jean Borich and Body Geographic, visit http://barriejeanborich.com.
November 26, 2012 § 1 Comment
NonfictioNOW 2012, the Melbourne Edition, ended yesterday, and as I reflect back over the last few days, from my hotel room with its bird’s eye view of the northwest side of this mod glass city, I find that can’t separate form from content.
By form I mean the multi-racial, multi-national, graffitied central city of Melbourne, as well as the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology campus where where the conference took place this year. RMIT is a design and technology university, situated (in-part) in the center of Melbourne. The nonfiction program that hosted us, the nonFictionLab, of the Nonfiction Research Group at RMIT, is located, interestingly (to anyone who has been a part of conversations regarding where to put creative writing in the university) in the School of Media and Communication, which aligns writing with design, digital media, film and television, media studies, cultural studies and photography.
The place and space detail of this year’s conference matters because such is part of the purpose of this gathering I’ve long affectionately referred to as NonNow. How might we relocate nonfictional artistic form, on and beyond the page? At this moment where digital communication has changed how many of us think, work and exist, and where the technology of the book itself, not to mention the contemporary city, shifts daily, where we hold these discussions may be a marker of what we’re talking about.
NonfictioNOW has always used such language as “myriad of forms,” a descriptor that is the reason I’ve been to every single one of these gatherings since the inception. But what is form if not a kind of spatial experience? I spent much of the three days of this year’s conference, as always when suspended in conference-time, chatting with friends and colleagues, some of whom I see only in the country of conferences, listening to now familiar discussions (though perhaps here, at RMIT at least, framed with even greater attention to cross-disciplinarity) about genre boundaries, the unknowability of reality, and the ways to make or unmake our own places and bodies on the page. What differed this time was seeing my life’s work, and that of nearly everyone in those rooms, from the liberating angle of the other side of my known world.
The atmosphere of central Melbourne is made of intense immigration, particularly from Asia, as well as innovative and environmentally informed architectural design. A note back to my Minneapolis architect friend Paul Mellblom confirms what seems true walking around this city. “Melbourne is quite the architectural happening place,” Paul tells me. “Very experimental and thoughtful design [such as] double skins are much in vogue, due to building codes that mandate energy and especially water efficiency.”
At dinner last night at a glass-swathed eatery serving a mix of Asian cuisines, hidden within one of the Melbourne City Centre’s many interior-exterior spaces, my spouse Linnea and I agreed that Melbourne feels pleasingly geometric, like living within a Mondrian painting. Part of this feeling comes from the hours I spent on the RMIT campus, the highly designed building renovations of Storey Hall, visually stunning, with great attention paid to shape and lighting, from the polished asymmetry of the flooring to the ruffles and curves of the ceiling and overhangs, embedded shapes one local told me were meant to represent the Suffragettes who used a previous iteration of this space as their meeting hall. Every journey to the restroom was a wandering into distinctly green-lit corridors, illuminating passageways as if into labyrinth of essayistic revelation.
Others have, and will, report some of the finer details and critiques of what conferees discussed at this years’ panels, and my own post-conference discussion questions are the same any observant participant might ask. Why is the city of Melbourne so much more racially diverse than the panel audience, and why do so many more women then men come to NonNow? Are there more queer writers who might come to this conference, but don’t, and if so, why not? And consider the question a Koori shopkeeper at the Vic Market asked Linnea and me after showing us her cousin’s memoir—will there be Aboriginal writers at your conference? Which leaves me curious to hear the backstory to explain why every conference keynote began with homage to Aboriginal people (which I assume is formal reconciliation statement of some sort) when Aboriginal writers did not appear in the program. I ask these questions fully admitting I come here knowing little about how these issues play in Australia overall, nor what it took to pull off this event at RMIT, but also hoping the diversity panel I was a part of is the start of a discussion that grows and becomes much more complex in the NonNow’s to come.
The questions I come away with for my own work are best described as familiar but newly nuanced. Do time-sensitive and polemical nonfictions fit fast-acting internet forums better than others, and will we continue to require the printed page? Are the characters we make of our own lives revelations of (in Cheryl Strayed’s words) the second heart we must rip from our chests, or (in Xu Xi’s words) “face-blankets,” second skins not unlike those of Melbourne architecture, designed to both express and protect? How do we forestall synthesis in order to sensorially experience new places before committing spatial description to the page? Is it fair to insist that the novel is dead and the fact irrelevant when conversing with writers from countries where writing narrative realism has landed them in prison?
The Americans will carry these questions back over twenty-something hours of travel, and rephrase them in our work and in our classrooms. And while I am still sad over the loss of this year’s biannual conference to a generation of Midwestern American creative writing grad students, not to mention many teachers and writers from all over the USA who did not have access to either time or institutional resources to travel all the way to Australia, I wrap up this year’s meeting deeply grateful to DePaul University in Chicago for supporting the conference portion of my trip this year. Having taken on this long journey, despite reservations about the relocation, I must admit I’m transformed by the experience of internationally reframing of our conversation. Thoughtfully made spaces are themselves the re-creators of form, and when these spaces remove writers from familiar ground, reground us in a new contextual frames, the conversation can’t help but burst its previous container.
The purpose of conferences are to burst our containers, reframe our works, re-landscape our understanding, move us from the parochial and static into what may well be called the Non Now. One of my last conference conversations this year was with the essayist Patrick Madden, a writer I met first in the middle of the night a few NonNows ago, at the printer in the lobby of the conference hotel in Iowa City, both of us printing out our newly revised conference papers the night before our panels. This time we finished our conference saying “Will I see you at AWP in Boston this year? Oh right, we’re on a panel together.” And then we laughed about the oddity of this country we conferees populate, the people we see again and again, in rooms all over the world yet never in the Not-Non-Now of our actual lives. The new work will rise from the intersection of these spaces.
Barrie Jean Borich is the author of Body Geographic forthcoming in the University of Nebraska Press American Lives Series, and My Lesbian Husband, winner of the Stonewall Book Award. She was the first nonfiction editor of Water~Stone Review and recently joined the creative writing faculty at DePaul University. Barrie splits her time between Chicago and Minneapolis.
April 11, 2012 § 4 Comments
The clock is ticking for those of you planning to submit to Brevity’s themed September 2012 issue .
Here, again, is the issue’s focus:
Numbers, as the introduction to the 2010 VIDA count of gender disparities in publishing puts it, don’t lie. The under-representation of women in English language letters proves remarkably consistent, with dismal numbers found everywhere from smaller literary journals to publications like the Atlantic. Susanne Antonetta, Barrie Jean Borich and Joy Castro—three members of the VIDA Genre Advisory Committee for Nonfiction (shown here with graduate student interns Kate Ver Ploeg, Sarah Montgomery, and Nuria Sheehan at AWP 2012) —are working together to guest-edit an issue of Brevity that aims to go beyond regretting the numbers and find work by women, including transgendered women, that will further the conversation. Titled “Ceiling or Sky: Female Nonfictions After the VIDA Count,” this issue will foreground the women’s writing we have not been seeing and the lingering reasons behind its persistent absence.
Submissions accepted between November 1, 2011, and May 1, 2012 and authors will be paid a $45 honorarium for work selected.
November 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
We are happy to announce that our September 2012 issue will be guest-edited, and uniquely focused:
Numbers, as the introduction to the 2010 VIDA count of gender disparities in publishing puts it, don’t lie. The under-representation of women in English language letters proves remarkably consistent, with dismal numbers found everywhere from smaller literary journals to publications like the Atlantic. Susanne Antonetta, Barrie Jean Borich and Joy Castro—three members of the VIDA Genre Advisory Committee for Nonfiction—are working together to guest-edit an issue of Brevity that aims to go beyond regretting the numbers and find work by women, including transgendered women, that will further the conversation. Titled “Ceiling or Sky: Female Nonfictions After the VIDA Count,” this issue will foreground the women’s writing we have not been seeing and the lingering reasons behind its persistent absence.
Submissions accepted between November 1, 2011, and May 1, 2012 and authors will be paid a $45 honorarium for work selected.
February 16, 2011 § 3 Comments
… but didn’t get the chance to publish. (Insert sad face.) Here are excerpts. Click on the titles to read the full text:
The day my brother nearly burns down the house, I am sitting on the living room floor.
Correction: it’s not a house but an apartment, my father’s first since the divorce.
I am playing with Lincoln Logs on the burnt-orange shag carpet, building and rebuilding a perfect house with a green roof.
Correction: I’m not playing; I’m killing time until we’re returned to our real home with our real toys and our real parent.
The dog on the Calumet Expressway was no discernible breed, a good runner the size of a Doberman or Greyhound, sleek and short-haired, dark with russet markings. No collar. The dog ran toward my car as I wound around the exit ramp toward the old East Side, where I was headed to pick up Little Grandma. The dog sped toward the rumble of rusted sedans and semi trucks, into the far southside industrial speedway. Naked was the word that kept coming to mind. Where was that dog headed, so naked, so exposed, her flanks heaving?