I Didn’t Want to Go: A Post-AWP Reverie

April 16, 2019 § 6 Comments

Lorri in the Library (3)By Lorri McDole

When Talking Writing’s editor Martha Nichols asked if I’d be at AWP Portland to sign the Into Sanity anthology I’d contributed to, my first thoughts:

Too Damn Big. Too Much Anxious.

But second thoughts:

It’s only a 3-hour drive, and I’ll get the new experience of signing books at AWP. Plus, it’s only October! Surely, I’ll be in a better emotional space by March?

As soon as I registered, Dread moved in for real and unpacked his bags, which were legion: thousands (and thousands) of people…alone this time (I’d gone to AWP Seattle with a friend)…alone-Lyfting (was it safe?)…no MFA friends (because no MFA) to cower with. Etcetera.

Dammit.

On March 12th (verified by my journal), I started scheming about bowing out, because I hadn’t heard whether the anthology would, in fact, be published in time. On March 13th, Austin Kleon tweeted a page from Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate that, very loosely translated, read, “You can say no.” Permission! Relief.

Later that same day (really), Martha emailed, also loosely translated: The book is done, it’s beautiful!

Dammit all to hell.

If I had to go, I needed more than a how-to-kick-AWP’s-ass plan. I needed a finely-honed mission.

Beth Ann Fennelly

I discovered Beth Ann’s book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, through The Writer, which ran a micro-memoir contest that Beth Ann judged. My story was published as a finalist, so I packed Heating and Cooling and my copy of The Writer (thinking I could just point in case I couldn’t squeak the words out). I got up super early for her Thursday morning panel, snagged a second-row seat, and watched her walk in: long red hair, skirt printed with rows of books, teal velvet crop top (!), multi-colored shoes. I don’t remember what she talked about (I have notes somewhere), but after all her University of Mississippi students, who also love her, made it through the line, I got to meet her. She wrote something lovely in my book and said, “I remember your story! It was so good!” Swoon.

Yi Shun Lai

Yi Shun, an editor at The Tahoma Review, is a passionate, no-nonsense speed talker. I knew she had another panel to run to, and I surprised myself by matching her fast talk when it was my turn, leaving out my notorious comma-speak: “I know you’re in a hurry but awhile back you gave me great feedback on a short piece that I then submitted for Beth Ann Fennelly’s contest at The Writer and they published it!”

“I love stories like that!” Yi Shun said, and she was off. Short, sweet, no time for awkwardness.

Ira Sukrungruang

On Saturday, heading to lunch with fellow Talking Writing contributors, I saw Ira, the editor of Sweet, going up the escalator while I was going down. Time was diminishing (as I once misheard my husband say on the phone), so I threw my arm up and waved. “Hi Ira! You don’t really know me, but you published me a couple of years ago.”

“Hi!” he waved back. “Come by the booth later!”

I almost didn’t—I’d already said hi, what next?—but I also wanted to buy one of his books. He’d sold out, but I did snag a beautifully-designed chapbook Sweet had published. When I confessed that AWP made me nervous, Ira gave me some personal picks and tips for choosing a smaller nonfiction conference to attend. He was as generous as I imagined he would be.

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There were things I didn’t accomplish. I didn’t see Liz Prato, with whom I originally workshopped the story that would make it into Talking Writing’s anthology and whose book, Baby’s on Fire, I carried the entire weekend, hoping to have her sign it. I didn’t visit the mentor booth (I’m probably too old to be mentored anyway, right?). And when Allison K. Williams called out before her panel started, “Hey, this is So-and-So (I’m sorry So-and-So, I didn’t catch your name), and he’s in the book Flash Nonfiction Funny,” why didn’t I stand up and call back, “Hey, I’m in that book, too!” I didn’t even get to meet Allison—who had rejected my story (positively!) for Brevity’s podcast—because I had to leave the panel early.

But there were other things I experienced on the fly. An engaging conversation with Jennifer Jean, poet and Managing Editor of Talking Writing, about hybrid texts, how you can use dreams and suppositions and maybes in nonfiction stories if you clearly signal what you’re doing. The serendipity of sitting next to a guy in a panel who heard me fangirling over Beth Ann (again) and said, “Hey, I hired her at Mississippi.” Finding out that the company I was keeping in the new anthology (you never know, right?) was stellar.

I could have gotten a lot more out of AWP, but I also could have gotten a lot less. It’s been two weeks since I made the 5-hour trip down to AWP (an anxious girl has to stop more than most to use the bathroom), and this is what it still feels like: I brought the behemoth that is AWP down to my size, and I killed it.
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Lorri McDole’s writing has been published in The WriterCleaver, Prime Number Magazine, Sweet, The Offing, and Brain, Child, as well as in several anthologies that include Into Sanity and Flash Nonfiction Funny. Her essay “Storms of the Circus World,” which was a finalist for the Talking Writing Prize for Personal Essay, was nominated for a 2017 Best of the Net award.

Teaching Brevity: Pennies in My Pocket

September 15, 2017 § 13 Comments

amymontBy Amy Monticello

All my life, I’ve been drawn to singular things. Returning from a trip to Italy in my twenties, I brought only one bottle of wine from a private vineyard I knew I’d never visit again. I love charcuterie boards with their assortment of tiny, ephemeral delights. I had one high school boyfriend, one college boyfriend, and one husband with whom I have an only daughter. As a young pianist, I once fell in love with a piece of sheet music called “Light Amethyst” in a practice book my teacher gave me. From its first notes in D-major, that melancholy scale, I felt possessed by the story I heard the music telling. I memorized the piece so well, I can still play some of it over two decades later. I played “Light Amethyst” to the detriment of other music—in some ways, it was the piece that undid me as a musician, a piece I loved so much that nothing could lure me away from it.

Over time, I’ve learned that singular love is merely representative of the world’s possibilities, that to love one thing is proof that I can love infinite others. But my affection for the small and self-contained remains. This is why, as an M.F.A. student, I became enamored of the flash essay. This is how I found Brevity.

“I’d like to see all of you write a piece that could be published in Brevity,” our workshop professor, Lee Martin, once told us. He was not the kind of teacher to issue publication challenges. He was not the kind of teacher who thought the drive to publish was particularly good for the practice of writing. What he meant by his wish was that each of us in that nonfiction workshop could eventually write a 750-word essay that could satisfy the reader just as much as some of the 20-page essays we’d discussed in class. To learn how an economy of language forces choices of essentiality. To reveal the emotional “turn” at the end of the essay, as Lee called it, without sacrificing complexity.

It was a challenge that took me six years to meet. My work was rejected from Brevity at least five times, but the essay finally accepted, “Shame,” is still the piece I send to people in my non-writing life when they ask to see something I’ve written.

Now a writing teacher myself, I can’t think of a class I’ve taught in the last eight years where I haven’t used a Brevity essay. They are inexhaustibly useful, providing wholly digestible examples of expository writing from personal narrative, to literary journalism, from lyric essay to imaginative forms of cultural analysis appropriate for both creative writing and first-year writing courses. They are short enough to read aloud in class so that we can feel the language in our mouths, track the moves of inquisition, and trace the spine of story. I’ve often begun class with a Brevity essay as though offering my students a piece of currency to spend however they wish that day.

Matthew Gavin Frank’s “A Brief Atmospheric Future” has become my go-to piece for introducing the braided essay in my creative nonfiction workshop. From the same Issue 51, I’ve taught Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Some Childhood Dreams Really Do Come True” to open discussions of genre—what is the difference between a flash essay and prose poem? What are the challenges and opportunities of creating in liminal spaces? Amy Butcher’s “Eight Quarters” shows the command an essayist needs of both situation and story—the situation of visiting a once-beloved friend in prison, and the story of fearing the monstrousness within our loved ones, within us all. And then there’s Jaquira Diaz’s “Beach City,” and the intimacy of its young characters trying to find permanence in a place of transience: “We were the faraway waves breaking, the music and the ocean and the heat rising rising rising, like a fever. We were bodies made of smoke and water.”

But if I had to single out one lesson that Brevity has allowed me to create, it would be the lesson on using a collective voice in creative nonfiction. Fittingly, the person whose work inspired this lesson is the same person who introduced me to the journal: Lee Martin. His genre-defiant essay “Talk Big,” from Issue 41, speaks in the “we” voice of working-class men living in downtrodden conditions. “We know who we are—the lowlifes, the no-accounts, the pissants, the stumblebums,” Martin writes. “All liquored up. Ten foot tall and bulletproof in a going-nowhere-fast town in southeastern Illinois.” As the essay tells us the story of a second-degree murder that takes place outside a rough-and-tumble bar in that “going-nowhere-fast” town, it uses the voice of the place to describe both the men’s desperation to survive, and their resistance to admitting “how close we are to dwindling down to nothing.”

“Talk Big” opens up possibilities for new points of view in creative nonfiction besides the veritable “I.” It relies on the fact that an essay’s narrator is often representative, speaking on behalf of the groups to which that narrator belongs, and thus uses a group voice instead of an individual one, right down to the language: “So we keep talking. Pissed off—bat shit crazy—talking big, big, big to tell ourselves we’re alive, to convince ourselves we’re still whole.”

I like to pair this essay with another Brevity masterpiece, Ira Sukrungruang’s “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology,” published in Issue 44. Sukrungruang’s essay, too, describes a group experience. A clique of Thai-American boys, to which the narrator belonged as a child, ostracizes another Thai-American boy who wishes to be part of the group. “You were a boy after all. So were we,” Sukrungruang writes. “But boys are cruel with neglect, crueler than the violence our hands are capable of.” The essay builds on Martin’s use of the collective voice—Sukrungruang’s narrator retains an “I” point of view, but positions himself as part of the group of boys with the heavy use of “we.” Even more interesting, the piece itself is an epistle: It’s written to the ostracized boy, who, the narrator learns, eventually hanged himself many years later. I love the fluctuation of “I,” “we,” and “you” that explores our constantly shifting positionality—our relationships to others, to our cultures, and to ourselves.

In short (but not quite Brevity short, for this post already exceeds the maximum length for an essay in the journal), I carry Brevity essays into the classroom like pennies in my pocket. They are all worth the same, but the variation astounds: some are brassy, some glisten with the high sheen of newness, some have the build-up of history on their faces, and some have been manipulated by other forces—run over by trains, fingered into metal-softness, grown over with a lattice of dirt or rust. Each of them a singular accomplishment, and yet all sharing the same constraints. Each of them individually powerful and instructive, but all part of a single journal’s unforgettable vision.
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‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here (we’ll update the links as we post the other entries over the next two weeks: 2, 3, 4, 56
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Amy Monticello is the author of the nonfiction chapbook Close Quarters (Sweet Publications)Her forthcoming collection, How to Euthanize a Horse, won the 2016 Arcadia Press Chapbook Prize in Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in BrevityThe Iron Horse Literary ReviewThe RumpusBrain, Child MagazineHotel Amerika, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor at Suffolk University in Boston, MA, and a regular contributor at Role/Reboot.

 

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