Dont Right Badly

February 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

51IwbgLFx-L._SL500_AA300_We were lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Ben Yagoda’s How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.  It is smart, often funny, and filled with the sorts of grammar, usage, and language development facts that make us writing geeks smile. .

Yagoda is running an interesting “promotion” today, promoting his book, but also helping out a worthy cause   See his note below for details:

On pub day, or when a positive review or a national interview comes out, it’s nice to track your book’s number as it progressively plummets. (Or, usually, “plummets.”) I recognize that’s a pretty narcissistic endeavor, however, so today I want to combine it with a bit of philanthropy. Here’s the deal. “How to Not Write Bad” is currently number 2,502. Please order the book! Every time its ranking drops by another 100 (that is, to 2400, then to 2300, etc.), I will donate a copy of the book to one of my favorite enterprises, Mighty Writers. If somehow it gets to 100, then I’ll give a copy every time it drops by ten.

Mighty Writers is a Philadelphia-based operation, founded and headed up by Tim Whitaker, whose website says: “Our mission is to teach Philadelphia kids (ages 7 to 17) to think and write with clarity, so self-esteem grows and success is achieved at school, at work and in life.” To that end, MW offers (at its cool downtown HQ) a daily after-school Academy, plus long- and short-term writing classes at night and on the weekends. Crucially, they also provide intensive SAT Prep courses and college essay writing classes.

I’ll provide updates through the day on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #HelpMightyWriters.

Scatter Plotting the Truth of Memoir (With Pretty Pictures)

September 2, 2011 § 2 Comments

Amaris Ketcham, a regular blogger over at Bark, has a fresh response to Ben Yagoda’s possibly facetious scale for determining the “truth” of a memoir. We were charmed by her wit, but then she made our heads spin by plotting a truthfulness chart with clouds and a star and a moon, followed by a tasty pie chart of falsehoods, and a scatter plot of Deceit vs. Craft Vs.Tricks vs. Belief. A case of extremus graphicus, surely. But the pictures are just so wonderful, we had to point the way.

Here’s an except following by our usual link to the source:

I’ve always disliked the debate over whether a memoir has to be 100% factual. Sure, I understand that no one wants to read a memoir that’s completely fabricated and only sold as a memoir for marketing. But applying any kind of coherent structure or narrative to the past is fictionalizing it. Truth and fact aren’t the same things–Truth is more important than Fact. Well, you know both sides of the debate. I decided to put my writing to the test with their scale. Here’s what I my graph looked like: As you can see, something screwy happened when I plotted out my writing according to it’s factuality. After deducting some points for all the fake names that people had given themselves and I had recorded as their names (look, if you call yourself Rookie Foolery, I’m not going to write you as “Kevin”) some more points for not fact-checking details (was it sunny that day in New Mexico? who knows? can I make an educated guess?), and some points for dialogue, I added some points for establishing a contract with the reader up front and making fun of the character that was Younger Me without deprecating other characters. Then I plotted out some clouds and a star and a moon, connected it all to some mountains and town in the foothills. Dammit. I couldn’t help adding a scene.

Read the Entire Scatter Plot Blog Entry here.

Truthfulness by the Numbers

August 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

We think his tongue might be partially (or fully) in his cheek, but all the same, Ben Yagoda (author of the excellent Memoir: A History, )  makes some fine sense with his recent “handy how-to guide” to determining the truthfulness of a memoir.  He offers his 100-point scale and applies it to everyone from St. Augustine to Hemingway, James Frey, and the crooner Andy Williams.

The rating system is reproduced below. And here’s the full link to his article, a collaboration with infographics artist Dan DeLorenzo:

Listening to One Another: A Defense of the Memoir Genre

February 21, 2011 § 35 Comments

Our managing editor Liz Stephens, a PhD candidate in nonfiction at Ohio University and author of the smart, surprising “Ten Years I’ll Never Get Back” in the Fall 2010 issue of Fourth Genre, responds to Neil Genzlinger’s recent attack on the memoir genre:

Dozens of memoirs line the discount table at my local chain bookstore. The slim edge of one book there makes me thrust my hand out in front of another customer before she can lower her own hand onto what might as well have been WWII silk stockings. I want it. Let her huff. She probably wanted the one about getting happy next to my choice anyway. She probably thinks my choice is inexplicable. She might have dropped my choice like a hot tamale. It’s Mark Doty’s Dog Years. And in fact, the book does change, if not my life, then my entire week, and everything I write for a few days.

Would everyone be moved by this book? Absolutely not. Cat people, for starters. People looking for plot, maybe. Looking for muggles or mysteries. On the other hand, on the list of preoccupations I share with Doty: a) pets. B) death. C) New York City in the Eighties. D) fathoming how our loved ones make us face the uncomfortable in everything. How we come out of it, not holy, but better.

Would Neil Genzlinger like my book, Genzlinger who recently in the New York Times expressed his dissatisfaction with that state of memoir publishing? I’d guess not. Presumably he’s over in the aisle with Lee Iacocca autobiography, Pete Sampras, Ronald Reagan. People who’ve Done Something.

But I’m not one of those people. And so how they’ve lived their lives does not interest me, unless their lives are suddenly very relevant to me (my new president) or much later have historical value (Ben Franklin). But me, I will always be mired in the everyday. Still, my quotidian life fascinates me so much that I want to know what others make of it as well, of their train rides, their errands through the streets, their awkward exchanges with daughters. Other people may go to the top of a mountain when their partner dies, and may subsequently write about it, but I for one am more likely, should that scenario come to pass, to do what Doty did. To sit on the bed I’ve recently shared with the deceased and stare at my dog, wonder what he thinks of the whole precious and fraught debacle of our human lives. Every big moment is only, it seems to me, while you’re feeling it, small moments stacked up. I resist anyone’s story that tells me differently. And, gee, I’m just not planning on starting a car company.

“There was a time,” Genzlinger writes, “when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir.” Well, yes and no. It’s true that early autobiography was usually the domain of the celebrated, both in America and abroad. But there have always been the Saint Augustines, of course; and he was a “nobody,” a monk who told us for hundreds and hundreds of pages, in the fifth century, that some days one considers one’s bellybutton and some days one feels the presence of God. So is there a precedent for “nobodies” telling their own stories? Doesn’t this tradition have its own rich history?

In 1906, an editor from New York published a book of “lifelets,” called The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans as told by Themselves. Butcher, bootblack, dressmaker, cook, nurse, minister. Putting aside the historical value of work like that, which is immeasurable, did it sell? It did.

It ushered in thirty hot and heavy years of writing, and a permanent precedent, for memoir by “ordinary Americans.” E. B. White, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, John Cheever all started as light memoir writers.

Nevertheless, am I interested in all the memoirs out today? Heck no. Some of them I think are not worth the paper they’re printed on. Let’s be honest, you think it too. But what supreme elitism to suppose those might not speak to other readers. The fact that I turn my nose up at some memoir I consider a matter of personal taste, and certainly while my brand of “taste” has been validated by a sort of educated cultural elite, only extreme myopia would lead me to think no other “taste” might be considered worse or better. Furthermore, you can bet there are a thousand people you’ll walk by today who are not interested in lyric essay, disjunctive timeline narrative, any of the markers of high literature which might otherwise absolve a memoir from a humble authorship. Are we all literati? Should we be?

Ben Yagoda, in his book Memoir from which I drew the early century memoir examples above, points out that the appeal of writing by “ordinary” Americans at the time might have been the contrast to other, bleaker, views of the culture; may be, I point out, the contrast these polyphonic voices offer to a more consensual view of any place or culture. We’re all these things, like it or not. We can’t keep Wallace Stegner and not claim Britney Spears (I mean, can we?). We are as much Karr’s Liar’s Club as we are Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. We’re as much Dillard’s An American Childhood as we are Harry Crew’s A Childhood. And, because we’re keeping it real here, we are as much the woman in Eat, Pray, Love as we are that guy in Tuesdays with Morrie. I haven’t read Tuesdays, because I’m guessing its tone wouldn’t appeal to me, but do I know the way we as a culture deal with aging is an issue for me too? Yeah. I’m just going to have to find that lesson elsewhere, but I’m glad that book synthesized that lesson for so many people.

And do I supposed some memoir about the ubiquitous damage of growing up white and middle-class in a divorced family….well, honestly, I’m having trouble thinking of a subject that has zero to do with me, that’s my best attempt at a book I think may not need to be written….but if I find that book, a book written in a style I don’t like, about a subject I think is vapid, I’ll just leave it on the shelf. For someone else. Because someone else may want that, may be so unconscious of themselves that to see their life reflected back, in a tone they don’t find distancing, could a game-changer. And if none of us think a book has worth, and we all leave it on the shelf, well, that’ll be its own reward, won’t it?

Can Genzlinger tell the woman down the subway stop from him what she should consider worth her time, just because an experience in a text does not speak to him? Some people write for the New York Times. Some people spend a lot of time worrying about their pets. Some people just want to sit down and have a laugh after a long day at work. It’s okay.

What does this fecund memoir rush in publishing tells us about ourselves as a culture? Is this the answer Genzlinger fears? I think it tells us something we shouldn’t worry about: we’re having a conversation with each other in the best way we can, since we may never meet. I’ve read a lot of memoir, since the start of recorded history, and so when I say always, I mean always, since we could write and eventually publish: we’re listening to each other, for all the wrong and right reasons we always have: prurient curiosity, absolution, confirmation, snarkiness, grace, boredom, community, joy.

Brevity’s AWP Nonfiction Cheat Sheet: Saturday

January 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

And finally ….

Saturday 9 to 10:15 am

Wilson A, B, & C Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

S116. Moving Pictures, Moving Words: Essays in the Digital Age. (Ned Stuckey-French, Marcia Aldrich, Rebecca Faery, Doug Hesse, Philip Metres, Wendy Sumner-Winter) This panel will examine the impact of the digital revolution on the essay. We will address the following questions: How are the new media changing the ways we write, read, and teach essays? What can essayists learn from poets, novelists, filmmakers, bloggers, web designers, and hackers about what the digital future may hold? What problems and possibilities do these new essays present to magazine editors, anthologists, and book publishers?

Saturday 3 to 4:15 pm

Diplomat Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

S201. Shaping a Life: Voice, Structure, and Craft in Memoir. (Janice Gary, E. Ethelbert Miller, Ben Yagoda, Dustin Beall Smith, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, Michael Downs) While fiction writers create entire worlds from scratch, those working in the nonfiction genre of memoir must struggle with the bulky material of an existing life. Like a sculptor working with a block of stone, the memoirist’s task is to shape and reveal, fashioning a well-formed text out of a lifetime of experiences. In this session, writers of memoir will discuss the challenges of the form including where to begin, structure and voice, material selection, and other craft considerations.

Saturday 4:30 to 5:45 pm

Executive Room
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

S222. The Unfolding Story: Narrative Possibilities in Creative Nonfiction. (Steven Harvey, Joe Mackall, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Bob Cowser, Michael Steinberg) Stories emerge in works of creative nonfiction in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are told in a straightforward manner, but often they are truncated, muted, or implied—and each choice has consequences. What are the possibilities for storytelling available to the writer of nonfiction? What effects do these choices create? Does the genre place any limits on narrative possibilities? A panel of writers and editors will examine these questions about the tales we tell in creative nonfiction.

But for Some Stolen Pears: A History of Memoir

January 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Daniel Mendelsohn offers a lengthy review essay in the latest New Yorker in response to Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History.  The review itself offers quite an intelligent history of the genre—and the controversies that have swirled.  Here is Mendelsohn on the founder of memoir, St. Augustine:

It all started late one night in 371 A.D., in a dusty North African town miles from anywhere worth going, when a rowdy sixteen-year-old—the offspring of an interfaith marriage, with a history of bad behavior—stole some pears off a neighbor’s tree. To all appearances, it was a pointless misdemeanor. The thief, as he ruefully recalled some thirty years later, was neither poor nor hungry, and the pears weren’t all that appealing, anyway. He stole them, he realized, simply to be bad. “It was foul, and I loved it,” he wrote. “I loved my own undoing.”  …  However trivial the crime and perverse its motivations, this bit of petty larceny had enormous consequences: for the teen-ager’s future, for the history of Christianity and Western philosophy, and for the layout of your local Barnes & Noble superstore.

Memoir as Soviet Social Realism

November 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

In truth, we think Maud Newton (the esteemed blogger and book critic) is painting memoir with too wide a brush and setting up a bit of  strawman (straw book?) argument here, but her thoughts on why she writes her life story as a novel instead of as a memoir are provocative, and here at Brevity (way up here, in our lofty penthouse office), we like provocative things.  So have a listen:

It’s hard to dispute writer Ben Yagoda’s assertion that the memoir has become the “central form” of this cultural moment. Whether it has, as he also contends, supplanted fiction remains to be seen.

But I hope he’s wrong.

Of course some escape-from-my-wretched-childhood stories are smart and candid and complex. Shalom Auslander’s “Foreskin’s Lament” flies in the face of the therapeutic model: It closes on a troubling note, as Auslander worries that the God he’s turned his back on will punish him by killing his child.

For the most part, though, the general formula is simple, and quintessentially American — miserablism to triumphalism, with the closing benediction, through sales, of capitalism.

The critic Dubravka Ugresic has likened this parade of stories depicting a downtrodden but ultimately redeemed real-life protagonist to Soviet social realism, in that they take actual events as a starting point but twist them into sanguine rags-to-riches propaganda that serves to reinforce readers’ belief that anyone can overcome difficult times. Such stories, in this analysis, are an insidious, uniquely modern incarnation of Horatio Alger’s dime novels.

Newton’s full story can be found in the LA Times.

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