Election Day Reads for a Better America (please add to the list…)

November 3, 2020 § 1 Comment

Justin Hackworth Photography

By Joey Franklin

If the past several years of political rancor have demonstrated anything, it is that Americans are not often at our best when talking politics (I know I’m not).  There seems to be so little room for compassion, nuance, or even a basic acknowledgment of a common humanity outside our own tribal boundaries.

Tania Israel, author of Beyond your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, writes: “If we cannot survive outside of our bubbles, if we cannot tolerate listening to our friends and families and neighbors, if we cannot see beyond our own perspectives; if we view our fellow citizens as enemies, how can we sustain our relationships, our communities, our country?”

And if you are anything like me, you read those questions, and you imagined friends and family that you sometimes can’t tolerate listening to; and you probably imagined people you know who have trouble seeing beyond their own perspectives (and you probably didn’t count yourself among them). But these are essential questions to ask ourselves at the peak of one of the most contentious and significant presidential races in modern history. No matter which candidate prevails, the health of our nation will depend a great deal on our ability to speak across socio-political boundaries, to recognize our own blind spots, to accept one another as fellow human beings, and speak clearly and powerfully about what it is to live in this strained and divided country.

Given this imperative, I offer here five essays that demonstrate the kind of poignant, challenging, socially conscious invitation to empathy that is so essential to the health of a diverse citizenry. Change comes as we learn to see one another more clearly, when we reclaim patriotism in the spirit of the essay—not a flag-waving zeal based on myth and convenient narratives, but a skeptical hope in the power of individual experience to lift us toward our loftier ideals. 

Election Day Reads for a Better America:

“It’s bad to lie your way through life. But this is easier, better. What’s worse is how it keeps happening. We build it—our lives, a city, a home—we break it down. Over and over.”

Azzam’s stunning lyric essay captures the way racism, fear, and a desire for belonging can complicate allegiances and life for immigrant families in the United States. 

“I just don’t think Americans fully realize how terrorizing it is to black males when we are falsely suspected as violent criminals. All Americans seem to be thinking about is their fear of us—not our fear of their fear.”

Kendi examines the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the irrational white fear that led to his death and that continues to threaten people of color across the country.

“If we ever forget that there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who have allowed memory to be murdered too, and what good are we then?” 

Before Brian Doyle died, he came to BYU and read this essay about the heroes of the Sandy Hook school shooting. He passed out copies and told the audience: “Walk out of here with ‘Dawn and Mary’ in your pocket. Then read it as you like, and then copy it a hundred times and give it to everybody you know.”

“No matter what we write, white people can turn our stories into weapons, an excuse to be paternalistic . . .No matter what we do, we’re still Indian, and often we don’t get to speak for ourselves.”

Mailhot reflects on the long history of white culture appropriating, denying, exoticizing, erasing, and demonizing native cultures, and expresses a desire to speak on her own terms.

“After September 11, I saw for the first time that the flag—along with all its red, white, and blue collateral relations—is what a semiotician would call ‘polysemous’: it has multiple meanings.”

Fadiman considers the roots of her bias against flag waving, and reconsiders the possibilities of patriotism and the nature of her own belonging in a post 9/11 America.

On this election day, as the frenetic energy of the campaigns come to an end, and we sit in what we hope is the calm after, and not before the storm, it is good to read something that challenges us to be better Americans. These essays here are just a primer, and I hope in the comments below you’ll share titles, and maybe links to essays that inspire you on this election day. Heaven knows we all could use a little of that.

*And a quick note of thanks:  To Dinty for inviting me to inhabit the Brevity Blog over these past few days, and to the Brevity community at large for taking the time to read, think, comment, and share. It has been a pleasure. Happy reading. Now go vote!).
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Joey Franklin’s new book Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays is on sale now at University of Nebraska Press. Use discount code 6AF20 to get 40% off.
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Joey Franklin’s newest book is Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays. He is also the author of My Wife Wants You to Know I Am Happily Married (Nebraska 2015). His articles and essays have appeared in Poets & Writers MagazineWriter’s ChronicleHunger MountainGettysburg Review, the Norton Reader, and elsewhere. With Patrick Madden, he co-edits the literary magazine Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (accepting submissions now), and he teaches at Brigham Young University where he coordinates the MFA program in creative writing. His current projects include a memoir about the saints and scoundrels in his family tree, and a professionalization guide for creative writers. He can be found online at joeyfranklin.com.

A Review of James M. Chesbro’s A Lion in the Snow

March 22, 2019 § 4 Comments

chesbro_coverBy Shamae Budd

I escaped the mayhem of the birthday party with a slice of cake, sinking with a sigh into the woven fabric of the front sitting-room couch. I was there to support my friend—mother of the birthday boy—but none of the screeching children belonged to me. A ten-year-old girl sat near the window, knees pulled into her chest. I said a few words in greeting, but she didn’t respond. I assumed she was shy. I let her be, spearing a piece of cake—enjoying the quiet. But as I lifted the fork to my mouth, a woman entered the room and asked tiredly, “Are you ready to apologize?” The girl shot back a withering, “No.” My mouth still slightly agape, I realized I had unwittingly settled myself in timeout.

Their terse conversation continued, and I seemed to see a past version of myself in the girl, a future version of myself in the woman. Certainly I had played similar scenes alongside my own mother as an irascible teen. And now, nearing thirty, my husband and I had begun talking about starting a family, having children (who would inevitably become teenagers, as this girl was reminding me). I seemed to be seeing double: a moment that could have been pulled from both my future and my past.

Much like this quiet exchange between a mother and daughter, James M. Chesbro’s debut collection of essays, A Lion in the Snow: Essays on a Father’s Journey Home, invited me to consider the duality of parenthood. He writes, “All sons are heirs and successors to the way they are fathered.” Chesbro is a devoted husband and father of three, but he is also the son of parents who fought and separated, a father who died young—and these two sides of Chesbro’s experience with parenthood consistently inform each other. Similar to E.B. White in “Once More to the Lake,” Chesbro sees flashes of his deceased father in himself, and flashes of himself in his son—a circularity that becomes both a gift and a challenge.

In “Footsteps,” Chesbro recalls nervously sitting in a cardiologist’s office, not long after his father’s pulmonary failure: “I want to live longer than my dad,” he says, determined not to inherit his father’s legacy of heart disease. And in “Overtime,” he describes himself stomping to the attic after a disappointing football game, reflecting:

When Dad was alive, as I grew older, I vowed to keep football in perspective… And yet, this is how he would have reacted—stunned into silent anger. Dad shakes his head in my memory, and I shake mine back at him. Get a grip, Dad, I think to myself. But here I am in the attic.

These tensions felt familiar—I, too, have been startled by little habits and tones of voice that remind me suddenly of my mother. I see her in a gesture of my hands while I am speaking; I see her in a woman at a birthday party, and am startled when I see myself there, too. What lifts Chesbro’s essays from mere recollection into insight is his ability to move between everyday ephemera and self-scrutiny, revealing the complexity of a self that is at once both son and father.

These sometimes competing roles of father and son intersect compellingly in “Trains.” Chesbro hopes that an inherited set of toy trains will help rekindle a connection with his father, but as he unwraps the trains in the attic he finds only “the paper used as packing material: a bank envelope, an auto insurance business reply card that said I saved $12.30 on my auto insurance with Allstate, and a Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog Bargain Flash.” The heartbreak is in the mundanity of the detail—the devastating ordinariness of the objects appearing in stark contrast with Chesbro’s hopes for almost transcendental discovery. Eventually, Chesbro allows his son, James, to play with the precious toy trains, which leads, unexpectedly, to the father-son connection Chesbro was hoping to discover: “James struck the red train against the track over and over and over again, like a match to a matchbook. By the time my son went to bed, my mind was aflame with father.” In the hands of his son James, the trains—and memories of Chesbro’s father—come back to life.

This shift from empty-handed grief toward renewed life and wonder in “Trains” beautifully reflects the movement and organization of the collection as a whole. Chesbro’s father—who is so forcefully, even painfully present in Part I of the collection—seems to drift quietly into the background as the collection winds down, not disappearing entirely, but informing Chesbro’s fathering in ways that cause him to connect, to be present, rather than to disengage. Part II—often humorous and filled with slice-of-life essays on parenting—becomes a celebration of Chesbro’s own fatherhood, and especially his young son, James. Chesbro’s re-enactments of wildly rambunctious family dinners, ER waiting rooms, and tumbling block towers reminded me of Brian Doyle’s laughing reverence for family life. And Chesbro’s honest depictions of the joy, frustration, exhaustion, and wonder of fatherhood ultimately left me smiling with anticipation for the day when I will be the mother of that belligerent little girl at a birthday party: participating in a scene I have so far only experienced from the perspective of a daughter.
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Shamae Budd received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Brigham Young University. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, Bird’s Thumb, and elsewhere. She lives in Utah at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with her husband, and when she is not writing, she can generally be found among the aspen and pine, on a yoga mat, at the craft store, or walking her big red poodle in the park.

The Congenitally Wonder-Addled Brian Doyle

June 5, 2017 § 8 Comments

By Susan RoweSusan Bruns Rowe

The first time I met Brian Doyle I was at a writers’ conference pretending to be a writer. I chose his workshop because he had a kind smile, a well-groomed beard. Describe your first kiss! he shouted from the top of the class. He walked the aisles. He urged us to add details—saliva, braces, that awkward matter of the tongue. I sat paralyzed, eeked out three vomitable sentences. Time’s up, he said with glee. Then he asked us to share our work. Out loud. I kept my eyes glued to my paper, covering it like a grade-school spelling test. “I’d like to hear from someone who hasn’t shared yet,” he said standing inches away. Blood thrummed in my ears. My pulse was a fast staccato. Hands shot up. Not mine. There was no way.

The next time he gave a reading in my hometown. I sat with twenty other people in the basement of a musty Civilian Conservation Corps cabin reserved for “smaller” literary events. He took us on a quest for the perfect Pinot in a picturesque vineyard. You could see the sun in his eyes, how he savored each word in his mouth like wine. I was a college magazine editor by then, too, and he spent a morning with me, spouting ideas, advice, experience, while I scribbled. Six months later I sent him the issue to which I had given laborious birth. “Better,” he said. “Now concentrate on the writing . . . make it literary, make it leap off the page, make it tell a story on which a thousand others can stand.”

Every one of his emails was its own literary delight. He thought verbs should be “funky colorful unusual engines. Twist a noun into a verb.” Nouning he called it. He made no apologies for his self-described Herculean sentences (“I say happily go and read some Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Gibbon and Plutarch and see how the masters play with the pacing of a long passage.”) But his real art was to write from the heart. During my editor days, he ended every email by conferring blessings on my babies. I decided to send him a short piece I’d written about my youngest child. “Oh my gawd,” he emailed back. “That’s superb. That is honest with a capital H and O. Seems to me the pieces that are most tumultuously honest about the way joy and pain are identical twins are the pieces that come closest to catching the truth of the mysterious awful gift of it all, you know?”

I gave up editing to write. Things went downhill. I worked for six months on an essay I thought would be perfect for his magazine. I spent six days on the cover letter. He emailed back within an hour of receiving it. “Thanks,” he said. ” I don’t think it’s quite for us.” A year later, I sent him another piece, which he also rejected—this time with a hand-written note. I was making progress. About this time, I couldn’t open a magazine without Brian Doyle staring back at me. I borrowed a friend’s copies of The Christian Century. There was Brian Doyle. I ordered a single copy of Orion. There he was. He appeared in every other issue of The Sun. I used his proems, essays, and books in my writing classes, apologizing to students for yet one more example of writing from Brian Doyle. All of us longed to craft a single melodic sentence like Doyle did.

Last spring I interviewed him for an article about writers who approach writing like play. I’d had Brian in mind when I pitched it because he was always experimenting with form and language. He once wrote that the essay “is the most playful of forms, liable to hilarity and free association and startlement . . .” I asked him if he brought those qualities to his writing. “Hmm—I do think it’s true,” he said, “and immediately think of my sister saying I am congenitally wonder-addled because I got spectacles at age 7 and have never recovered from that wash of wonder. I suppose I am also sort of addicted to the salt and swing and song of the American language, which is a bruised dusty lewd brave vibrant language, and trammeling it carefully seems disrespectful to me, as long as I am clear. I never know where a story or an essay or a proem is going to end up, or even go, quite—I just start, and I have in mind that I want to write like people talk and think, in loose-limbed free piercing entertaining ways, and things go from there, sometimes utterly to the dogs.”

When the article came out, I’d heard about Brian’s illness. I sent him an email. I didn’t hear back. I wrote him a card telling him he was my writer hero, that he inspired me to write beyond my ability, that something happened in that workshop two decades ago that made me want to be a writer for real. I choked up, made mistakes, had to cross out words. “You can’t send him a card with cross-outs,” my husband chided. So I rewrote it. Without cross-outs. And it was much shorter. I left out all the stuff about heroes. I didn’t want to sound like a stalker or like maybe there wouldn’t be more rejection notes or articles in which I plumbed his writing genius. I’m not sure Brian remembered me from the hundreds, maybe thousands of other writers he helped over the years, but I don’t care about that. I wish, though, I’d sent him that card with the cross-outs and the mushy stuff about writer heroes. I wish I had.
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Susan Bruns Rowe teaches memoir and creative nonfiction at The Cabin and The Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning in Boise, Idaho, and recently joined the editorial staff of Literary Mama. Her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Penny,  and The American Oxonian. She has an MFA in creative writing from Boise State University.

** For more on the salt and swing and song of Brian Doyle, see his seven dusty lewd brave vibrant Brevity essays and our recent Podcast episode.

Essays Are For Lovers

February 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

ValentineWe’re here because we love essays, memoir, creative nonfiction. They’re not always easy to find on the shelf, and the Amazon browsing process can be…flawed. (Inspired by your shopping trends, this print of Iron Man. Yep, got it in one.)

Over at Essay Daily, notable nonfictioneers including Ander Monson, Maya Kapoor, Brian Doyle and Jill Talbot have listed some of their favorite essay collections, including our own Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mr. Essay Writer Guy and Southside Buddhist by Ira Sukrungruang, and also mentions of individual essays, including several at Brevity.

The booklist is itself a catalog essay of sorts, with the editorial comments from the recommenders as charming as tracking down the essays they adore. From Aurvi Sharma:

Eliot Weinberger’s ‘An Elemental Thing’
I read this collection of essays pretty much entirely on the NYC subway and often wanted to grab the person sitting next to me and say, ‘Read this!’ Apparently Eliot Weinberger is not that well known the the States. Must be rectified.

Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book Are these essays? Poems? Journal entries? Fiction? We don’t know but Sei Shonagon’s late 10th century words make us question our assumptions of what makes what, and that’s a good enough feature of nonfiction in my book.

Go check out the list…and choose a book for your Valentine.

Eating Nonfiction in Flagstaff

November 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

An illustrated NonfictioNow round-up from Rebecca Fish Ewan:

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“Stories are food!” Brian Doyle shouted right before we all broke for lunch. Stories are food. He said this throughout his keynote address with the urgency of a preacher in a revivalist tent. In fact, his message was not unlike a religious one.

“Nonfiction is everywhere!”

“Every part of your life is an essay!”

Can I get an Amen?

As he spoke, I thought back to the last NonfictioNow conference I attended and why. I had just gobbled up Reality Hunger by David Shields and had developed a huge crush on his brain, so I submitted to be a panelist at the conference just to hear him deliver the keynote. Not very spiritual of me. That was Melbourne, 2012.
Now the leaves shimmer golden in the brilliant light of Flagstaff, Arizona, and I can sense change in the air, specifically with regard to form. As I move from session to session, my own panel included, a clear thread begins to emerge, though it goes by varying names—visual memoir, blended genres, side-stepped boundaries, hybrid essays. Stories are food and while truth is still on the menu, the variety of dishes now expands beyond traditional bounds of language.

1unnamedAmen to that.
Never one to feel at the center of anything, I love witnessing the erosion of borders—between poetry and prose, between word and image, sound and story itself. Story-telling is embracing a synesthetic sense of the world, something Shields hinted at three years ago, but that now feels deep in the DNA of nonfiction. Panels include: Music and Writing, Making (Radio) Waves, Performing the Essay, Of Visual Essayistics, Mix It Up, Adventures in Poetic Biography, CNF and the Hybrid Form, the Poessaytics of Form, and my own Mixed Media Memoir. “One art form can explain another,” said Harrison Candelaria Fletcher while using Cornell’s shadow boxes to illustrate his thoughts and experience with the hybrid essay. “Writing is a script that can only be heard in the ear,” Will Jennings said as he discussed his interests in the link between music and memory. “Food is a mode of storytelling,” said Samantha van Zweden of using the lyric essay to write on memory, food and mental illness.

4unnamedA formalist might panic. If edges vanish, won’t everything blend into chaotic mush? How will we shelve our books at Barnes and Nobles?

Brenda Miller offered calming options in talking about her experiments with poetic forms applied to the essay. “I have always believed that rules and constraint can be liberating,” she explained as she presented her prose villanelle about two cats and pantoum on ectopic pregnancy and her college roommate Francisco. Another structured approach to genre bending comes through pairing. “The most interesting thing is the technique of juxtaposition,” said Michael Martone in the session on creative facting with Dave Madden, Tim Denevi and Maggie Nelson. Martone later illustrated the richness of juxtaposition in the keynote on keys he performed in duet fashion with Ander Monson. Juxtaposition is one way that a writer can apply what Madden called the “nonfictive imagination.” Nelson talked of “modes of assembly” as a way to reach into this species of imagination to find the story.

3unnamedBut what about truth? Is all this fuzziness a kind of magician’s slight of hand to enable the writer to lie? These questions circle back to Doyle’s story sermon where he implored us to use our gifts to “catch and share” the stories that are out in the world. “Witness is the greatest single thing you can do with your work,” he said. A witness is not a fabricator, but any witness perceives with his or her particular lens and recounts the story with his or her unique voice. I return as well to Kafka’s 63rd reflection on sin, suffering, hope, and the true way, where he reminds us that “our art is a way of being dazzled by truth.”

I was curious how the event affected a newcomer to the conference. My co-panelists, Amy Silverman and Deborah Sussman, both seasoned nonfictionalists, had never attended a NonfictioNow conference. “I was struck by how much experimenting is going on,” said Silverman, “I love seeing that visual art and poetry are making more appearances, even though my own work blends memoir with journalism. It was a nice time to get out of the writing cave and hear what others are working on.”

The collective wisdom and experience shared over these past three days has been astounding. The organizers, an army led by Robin Hemley, David Carlin and Nicole Walker, amassed a humbling assembly of authors. After reading through the speaker bios, I felt both honored and intimidated to be among such a group of writers. Nicole Walker senses the gladness of this entourage of talent that permeates the air in Flagstaff. “I thought I was doing this to bring people together for collaboration and conversation,” said Walker, “I didn’t know how much joy people would get from the conference and that makes me very happy.”

Amen to that.

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Rebecca Fish Ewan teaches landscape architecture at Arizona State University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing. Author of A Land Between, her work has also appeared in Brevity, LA magazine, and Hip Mama. She just finished her hybrid memoir (free verse + cartoon) on a childhood friendship cut short by murder and is launching a mixed form zine, GRAPH(feeties): true stories of walking. More on her work and submission info at:  www.rebeccafishewan.com

 

 

A Review of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays

October 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

By Kristin LeMay

amonI’ve long harbored the suspicion that what’s best in Montaigne is untranslatable. His essence seems to me embodied in a diction, orthography, and syntax as unsubstitutable as any individual. To borrow Emerson’s praise for Montaigne: “Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.”

My prejudice dates to a summer when my husband and I undertook to read all of Montaigne’s Essais during an extended stay in Paris. Each day we’d set out with our respective volumes, my much-prized Pléiade—fat despite its onion-skin pages—rubbing against the shedding, leather spine of Eric’s translated edition. Before long, I’d be snorting or smirking at the man I was encountering on the page. Eric’s brow would furrow. “What’s so funny?” We’d compare passages. And every time, I’d find that the persona I so relished in the original French—the irascible man wheeling through the sixteenth-century prose—was somehow lost in the transfer. My Montaigne was not in his book.

That experience of reading comparative Montaignes primed me for After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (University of Georgia Press, 2015). Twenty-four of today’s essayists rewrite Montaigne’s essays. What would these interactions reveal about the essay, in his moment and in ours? And what would these writers capture of the man who seemed—to me, at least—to live in the specific moments of language that, taken together, comprise his genre-founding work?

As After Montaigne’s subtitle suggests, editors David Lazar and Patrick Madden couch the interaction between each source essay and its contemporary rewriting as a musical “cover.” They explain, “Like an album of cover songs paying homage to an influential band or composer, these essays attempt to re-envision Montaigne’s topics through a contemporary sensibility.” And what, after all, is a cover, but a form of translation in which one musician puts a fresh spin on the lyrics and melody of another? Elvis Presley translated “Blue Suede Shoes” from the style of Carl Perkins into the style of Elvis Presley, just as, in 1603, John Florio translated Michel de Montaigne from French into English (adding a fair dose of Florio along the way). So After Montaigne promises to reveal twenty-four translations of Montaigne: Montaigne by way of Gornick, by way of Koestenbaum, by way of Purpura. And yet it also occasions a more surprising, ineffable mode of translation, one that runs the other way: Brian Doyle by way of Montaigne. As much as I was eager to see who these essayists would make Montaigne out to be, I was equally fascinated to see who they would become when they essayed under the banner of their forebear.

The anthology’s diversity makes for a lot of translations, so one of its most satisfying elements is the brief coda that follows each contribution, “explaining the process through which the essayist translated, transfigured, reimagined, or rethought some of the essential ideas, figures, and motifs in Montaigne’s original.” The contributions turn out to be as diverse as you’d expect from an array twenty-four writers wide. While Bret Lott sees his essay as an “offering . . . paying homage to M. Montaigne,” Shannon Lakanen finds herself surprised, on sitting down to write, “to argue against him.” José Orduña finds in his source essay from Montaigne a “sharp edge that ruptures,” and so his response is characterized by “challenge,” “discarding,” and “struggling,” while Elena Passarello goes at Montaigne more playfully, grafting “The Ceremony of the Interview of Princes” onto interviews with the musical artist Prince. “I thought it would be fun,” she riffs, “to score one man’s persona to the other man’s ‘music.’”

How to make sense of all this essaying? I found a useful lens for understanding and sorting the contributions once again in the realm of translation. Friedrich Schleiermacher pronounces that there are actually only two modes of translation (modes which, in fact, match the two primary tacks a contemporary essayist might choose in responding to Montaigne’s source text): “Either the translator leaves the writer alone as much as possible and moves the reader toward the writer, or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer toward the reader.” Schleiermacher advises against mixing the two modes. Any mingling, he predicts, will result in a confusing muddle that illuminates neither the original text nor the new audience’s context.

After Montaigne confirms Schleiermacher’s view. Its strongest, most memorable essays are those in which the contemporary writer has traveled the furthest toward adopting Montaigne’s style or, conversely, those in which Montaigne has traveled the furthest toward the contemporary writer. Mary Cappello’s “Of Thumbs” is the volume’s prime example of a writer becoming like Montaigne. Her coda clarifies her aim: “An essay like ‘Of Thumbs’ wishes for more contributors . . . I tried to ‘channel’ Montaigne . . . I tuned my writerly voice to meet the pitch of his.” The result is a lively, delightful continuation of Montaigne’s short essay. For an essayist who brings Montaigne all the way to her, look to Kristen Radtke. In “Against Idleness” she pulls Montaigne into the graphic mode for which she is best known. In Cappello’s essay, Montaigne might easily recognize his influence; in Radtke’s, he would likely wonder at the strange new world his work inspired. As a reader, I’m grateful for both.

So what new light do these “covers” shine upon Montaigne and the essay? Perhaps the most startling answer comes from Robert Atwan’s response to Montaigne’s “On Some Verses of Virgil.” He opens with the observation, “Personal essayists continually test the boundaries of shame and embarrassment.” This very testing is Montaigne’s most enduring legacy, since he inaugurated the naked, unadorned exploration of the self in his Essais. All of the contributors to After Montaigne write after that legacy. But Atwan’s essay also reveals how familiar, even commonplace, Montaigne’s once-revolutionary mode has now become. To mirror Montaigne’s embarrassing self-disclosures on sexuality and old age, Atwan must take recourse to quoting his own (self-professedly) bad poetry. He rightly senses that prose—even prose like Montaigne’s, confessing to a small penis or failed affairs—will no longer shock today’s readers. We’ve become desensitized to personal confessions in the personal essay. So Atwan’s contribution, in moving beyond the genre of the essay to achieve its ends, reveals both the lure and limits of Montaigne’s legacy in our moment.

Montaigne forged the essay into a genre for personal revelation and, for this innovation, he now inspires anthologies like After Montaigne. Yet paradoxically, this anthology—through both its most and least compelling pieces—hints at how the essay might now need to move beyond Montaigne’s style of confession and digression in order to channel his innovative spirit and, once again, feel “vascular and alive.”

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Kristin LeMay’s book I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson is available from Paraclete Press. Her translation of François Bovon’s Last Days of Jesus was published by Westminster/John Knox Press. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, Essay Daily, Harvard Theological Review, The Cresset, and other magazines.

NonfictioNow 2015: The Flagstaff Conference

March 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Patrick Madden proves once and for all that he is taller than Michael Martone at NonfictioNow 2012

The next iteration of the popular NonfictioNow Conference will be hosted by Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ, from October 28-31st, 2015. The conference began in Iowa City in 2005, repeated twice in Iowa, and moved to Australia for 2012. This year’s conference – the fifth in an irregular series – is discussed by conference organizer Nicole Walker, in an interview conducted by Erica Trabold:

Erica Trabold: NonfictioNow is a relatively new conference for nonfiction writers. What do attendees typically find most appealing about the conference?

Nicole Walker: Although this conference is centered around nonfiction, nonfiction itself is a somewhat hybrid, inclusive, bending genre. Fiction writers, poets, essayists, and journalists gather to really consider what is nonfiction and how nonfiction is shaping and defining itself as its own genre and in a conversation with other genres. So in some ways, its exclusive title is just a tricky way to be incredibly inclusive. This conference, too, is working on establishing an international understanding of the genre— writers will be attending from Hong Kong and Singapore, among other places.

ET: In the call for proposals, you expressed interest in work that focuses on genre boundaries, tensions between art/facts/truth, and “forms beyond the strictly literary.” What can you tell us about the proposals you’ve read so far and, perhaps, selected?

NW: We haven’t selected proposals yet. We’re still compiling them. We’re received over a hundred panel proposals for about 50 spots, so the competition will be stiff this year. Still, glancing quickly at the spreadsheet that my MFA student and conference-organizing-assistant Stacy Murison has put together, I see excellent titles like “The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating The Animal World,” “The View from the ‘Slush Pile’,” “Author Versus Narrator,” “Rewriting Those We Love,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Perspective, Agency, and the Tools for Getting Both on the Page.”

ET: What might attendees recognize about this year’s conference, and what will be brand new?

NW: As in the past, we’ll have keynote speakers who are as diverse in content as they are in form. Roxane Gay, Ander Monson, Maggie Nelson, Tim Flannery, Brian Doyle and Michael Martone will bring their unique vision of what nonfiction is to the conference. We will have panels during the day and readings around town at night, integrating the town of Flagstaff with the conference, as happened in Melbourne and Iowa City.

For the first time, we are hosting a book fair. We’ve limited the book fair to 20 tables so attendees aren’t overwhelmed by the vast number of lit mags and presses out there. Those exhibitors will be able to promote their books, magazines, and commitment to publishing contemporary nonfiction.

We’ll also host a game show night— which happened before but will be a little more formal this year— with Patrick Madden and Elena Passarello. On opening night, Alison Deming and Joni Tevis will kick off the conference with a reading sponsored, we hope, by the Arizona Arts Commission. It’s going to be nonstop nonfiction, but, even more inclusively, we’ll have discussions about how fiction and poetry are informed by nonfiction.

ET: What part of this year’s conference has you the most excited?

NW: I’m incredibly excited how many speakers we have coming to the conference. Six! Plus two more on Wednesday. And readings hosted by Milkweed, Diagram and Hotel Amerika in spots around town. And the influx of editors from magazines and presses will add a new dimension to the conference. We’re hosting the conference in the High Country Conference Center, which is attached to the Drury Hotel, where a number of our guests will be staying. It will be great to have a centralized space for everyone to convene and hang out and attend the panels and the keynote speaker sessions. The conference center is only a couple blocks from downtown so it will be easy to connect Flagstaff businesses and restaurants with the conference, making it a destination conference as well as a professional one. And true to form, I care most about the food, so I’m excited to bring a number of local restaurants on board to help sponsor the conference by advertising their restaurants and offering deals to visitors. I want people to know how excellent Flagstaff’s restaurants are. (Hmm. That was a lot of “ands.” It was too hard to pick just one.)

Brevity blog readers can visit nonfictionow.org to register for the conference and learn more about confirmed panelists and speakers as information becomes available.

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Erica Trabold’s (@ericatrabold) essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Weave, Seneca Review, Penumbra, and others. She writes and teaches in Oregon, where she is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction.

Nicole Walker is the author of the nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt which won the Zone 3 creative nonfiction prize, released in June 2013 and a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, published by Bloomsbury Press in 2013.

 

Writing is a Time Machine: Brian Doyle

May 20, 2013 § 10 Comments

doyle

Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle discusses the genesis of his essay, “Sachiel the Tailor,” found in the May 2013 issue of Brevity:

And where did Sachiel come from, you ask? I kid you not, from a hole in my excellent ancient beloved perfectly worn green cotton shirt, which yawned and grinned and gaped at me one morning, and made me sigh, and I took it to my excellent tailor Miss Choi, but in the doing so up rose Sachiel in memory, Sachiel who may have survived the Catastrophe but did not want to talk about it, Sachiel who did not move from his stool in his tiny storefront on Chauncy Street in Boston, Sachiel who would accept your goods laid on his countertop while you stared fascinated into the welter of the shop behind him filled to overflowing with needles and pins and thread and scraps and bolts of cloth and scissors and shears and poles with hooks with which he perhaps reached things high on the walls, though you never saw him move from his stool to do so; yet a day later there would be your goods, perfectly repaired, for quite a reasonable fee also, not to mention the chance to listen to Sachiel. He was an enormous man. He wore white shirts with dark vests. He had a broad face. When he appeared in my memory I could then hear his voice again, and feel the slicing wind down that narrow little street, and so I begin to type, and time is transcended, and space, and loss, and this is one of those sweet powerful holy things about writing that we do not talk enough about, I think; writing is a time machine, writing resurrects, writing gives death the finger. And so amen.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon. He is the author of many odd books, notably the sprawling serpentine sinuous Oregon novel Mink River.

Brevity’s Best American Roster

October 7, 2010 § 1 Comment

Proud and pleased to see so many Brevity authors in the newest Best American Essays 2010.  Four-time Brevity contributor Brian Doyle is represented front-of-the-book with his brief and thoughtful look at divorce, “Irreconcilable Differences.” 

Meanwhile, under Notables Essays of 2009, there are almost too many Brevity authors to list them all here, but we are going to anyway:

Marcia Aldrich, Joe Bonomo, Renee D’Aoust, Gary Fincke, Philip Gerard, Judith Kitchen, Lisa Knopp, Kim Dana Kupperman, Patrick Madden, Rebecca McClanahan, Alyce Miller, Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore, Anne Panning, Lia Purpura, Robert Root, Mimi Schwartz, David Shields, and Ira Sukrungruang.

Mahzeltov.

Why no Brevity essays represented in the magazine?  Well, we’ve just learned that online magazines can now submit, so (fingers crossed) look for us next year.

“In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form,” Saturday, April 24th, NYC

March 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

From our friends at Welcome Table Press:

It’s not too late to register for “In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form,” the first annual Welcome Table Press symposium.

The day-long event will be held on Saturday, April 24th, at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan, and will feature presentations by Robert Atwan, Brian Doyle, Vivian Gornick, Lia Purpura, and Emily Grosholz. The symposium will also include two panel discussions, one on teaching (with Paul Lisicky, Mimi Schwartz, Michael Steinberg, Elizabeth Stone, and Linda Underhill) and one on publishing, with representatives from Best American Essays, Creative Nonfiction, Essay Press, Fourth Genre, Graywolf Press, the New York Review of Books, Portland Magazine, the Sun, and others.

Come and join us for this exciting event, which also includes an afternoon tea and book signings.

For more information and a downloadable registration form/schedule, follow this link: http://www.welcometablepress.org/Upcoming_Events_UA7Z.html

Proceeds from registration fees will benefit Welcome Table Press, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit press dedicated to publishing and celebrating the essay.

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