Stand Up Naked and Turn Around Slowly

July 22, 2014 § 4 Comments

man-wearing-barrel-and-suspenders-after-divorce1How does our willingness to “get naked” on the page form our voice, and how does voice hide our nakedness? What’s more naked: writing fiction and baring all, or using one’s life as fact but perhaps more judiciously?

Dinah Lenney’s craft essay “Not-Quite-Naked” is part of a series at TriQuarterly. Ms. Lenney, the author of Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir and most recently The Object Parade, writes:

Here comes that confession (she starts to disrobe): first, as with acting, I don’t write to disappear, but rather to locate myself. But wait—which self am I talking about? What a stunner to discover—to have to admit—I am not only or even essentially the mother, the wife, the teacher, the student, the neighbor, the friend, the actor, the writer—even as I have tended to write firsthand accounts out of those relationships and situations. But wait again: Don’t fiction writers use first-person narration? Don’t they break the fourth wall? But they’re writing in character, yes? As if I’m not? Of course I am. Does it make a difference—does it say anything about my state of undress that I’m telling you so? I’m certain it does.

Read the essay at TriQuarterly.

Why Don’t We Essay in the Road?

June 2, 2014 § 3 Comments

Jill Talbot discusses the ideas behind the upcoming special “road” issue of Sundog Lit, featuring “creative nonfiction and other works that blend genre, that bend and experiment, that rumble down new roads.” July 1 deadline. Full submission guidelines can be found at the end of the interview.

  1. What inspired the theme for this issue, (Letters from) the Road?

easyWhen Justin L. Daugherty, the editor of Sundog Lit, announced that Brian Oliu would guest edit the first theme issue, Games,  I e-mailed Justin to ask if I might guest edit at some point, and in keeping with the one-word theme, I suggested Roads.

I write overwhelmingly about the road and connect with essays that do.  It would appear your editors do as well. Roxane Gay’s “There Are Distances Between Us,” Brenda Miller’s “Swerve,” Bob Cowser Jr.’s “By A Song,” B.J. Hollars’s “On the Occurrence of March, 20, 1981 and on the Occurrences of Every Night After,” Sven Birket’s “anti-road” essay, “Green Light,” Sean Prentiss’s “Tonight (the Big Dipper, You Leaving,” Steven Church’s “Overpass Into Fog,” and my own, “Stranded,”  all appeared in Brevity.

Every chance I had in graduate school, I got on 84 west out of Lubbock. Yet the moment I discovered I was drawn to roads in literature happened while reading a road scene in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, and if you’ve read that novel, you know it’s a road of destruction and drunkenness. Desperation.

In fact, the tag line on the Easy Rider film poster in 1969 read: “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.”   And Steinbeck, in Travels with Charley: In Search of America, declares, “I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found,” as he acquires the Wolfean knowledge that You Can’t Go Home Again.

I like the way the road can be the catalyst for self-inquiry, how William Least Heat-Moon in Blue Highways discovers: “I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.”

Road narratives are imbued with a search for what may not be found.  They’re a desire not to leave, but to leave something behind.  And because it’s a genre derived from the Western, a chord of violence or its threat trembles at least once within each narrative: Thelma and Louise. Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (or The Road). Don DeLillo’s Americana.  More recently, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.  Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California.

But it’s not all threat and edge. It’s also contemplative, ruminative. And for Virginia Woolf, a haunting—“For if we could stand there where we stood six months ago, should we not be again as we were then?”—just one of the questions she poses in “Street Haunting: A London Adventure.”   The road narrative offers side roads we never intended, but find.  For this reason, it is essayistic.

I worried announcing the special Sundog Lit issue as simply “Roads” would invite either clichés or Kerouac imitations, and I’m invested in the ways in which writers modify, innovate, and deconstruct conventions (essay and road).  So I wondered, “What would imply a voice of distance, of then/now, here/there, Wolfean/Woolfean wisdom?” And then I had it:  “(Letters from).”

  1. Some people claim every essay is an experiment, given the root word assay, or “to try.”  So what, in the current state of the literary essay, makes an essay experimental?  

The essay foregrounds thought, what Phillip Lopate refers to as “an intuitive, groping path” which, paradoxically, is carefully crafted by the writer.  The essay is a sleight of hand.

So in that way, the experiment is the reader’s—we start reading, and we don’t know where we’re going, and we hope to be taken aback by what we find. What did Eric LeMay say on this blog not long ago?  Oh, yes:  “An essay, by its very nature, isn’t finished by an essayist; it’s finished by a reader.”

But I also think an essay is an experiment when it expands our thinking about the possibilities of the essay (form).  Dinah Lenney. Marissa Landrigan. Ander Monson. Always, always, Marcia Aldrich.

Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot

As to the experiment of the “(Letters from) the Road” issue: I’m seeking essays, first person fiction, prose poems, photographs, and digital work in order to usurp genre with mode and create an essayistic issue.

For example, one of my favorite journals is Smokelong Quarterly because each story takes essayistic turns.  Some examples:  Kevin Sampsell’s “True Identity,” Jeff Landon’s “Thirty-Nine Years of Carrie Wallace,” and Jennifer A. Howard’s “Amateur Trailmaking for $1600.”

I recently discovered Anders Carlson-Wee on a night when he read his poems to a hushed room, and I whispered out loud with awe: “Those are essays.”

So my aim for the issue is to expand and extend the idea of “essay” beyond the boundaries of genre.

  1. Which do you like better, Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” or the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?”

I am more (“Whiskey River”) Willie than I ever will be Beatle, that’s for sure, but this is an excellent opportunity to highlight the tone of Sundog Lit, a journal that “publishes writing that scorches the earth.”

So if you’re not familiar with the “rusty-nail” writing Sundog Lit publishes, listen to Paul McCartney wail “Let’s Do It In the Road”—his voice a rage, a ruin, the last mile of a day-long, desert-heat drive.

FULL SUBMISSION GUIDELINES TO SUNDOG’S SPECIAL ROAD ISSUE.

Instructions to Somebody You Love: A Prompt

March 25, 2013 § 3 Comments

rutabaga21Dinah Lenney, author of “Instructions, As If” in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay and what can happen when a teacher follows the classroom prompt:

So this is funny—at least I think it is—I couldn’t for the life of me remember how I wrote “Instructions…,” or why: though I do remember where— it was at my kitchen table on a Monday night: the Kitchen Table Workshop met once a week for a couple of years, so once a week I came up with a prompt, or three (sometimes even four—I’d get over-excited, see, about prompts). But did I keep track of them? No. No, I didn’t. I don’t. I don’t keep a journal; I don’t know what I served 12 people for dinner last month (some people, like my mother, for instance, record that sort of thing, but not I); my books are not alphabetized; my files, virtual and otherwise, are a mess; and I do not keep track of writing prompts. O I have them all here, of course I do, lists of them on scrap and file cards and post-its and occasionally typed out as if I mean business, stowed in a folder on the Parson’s table catty corner from the desk. I’m planning to sort through them one day, really I am, but I haven’t quite gotten around to that. So, you ask, are they dated? Did I happen to take notes after workshop about how and why one worked or didn’t? No—no again. Which is why I couldn’t remember about “Instructions”: not even with four versions in my computer. (That’s how I work, I keep copying a piece over and over, file upon file, trimming, adding, moving on to the next draft, but not wanting to let any of it go until I’m sure I’m finished. And even then).

So what can I tell you about the essay? Well, it was Brenda Miller who taught me, by example, to follow a prompt with everyone else. I figure if she got her beautiful essay, “Table of Figures,” from an exercise she did alongside her students, I have no business twiddling my thumbs when everyone else is writing. So, on a Monday evening last fall, I followed my own mysterious prompt. And, the next day, liked what I had well enough to dive back in—at which point I proceeded to overwrite. However—turns out some pieces are meant to be brief: some situations don’t need a whole lot of elaboration. Not that I knew that at first—in fact, I went on and on, as if I hadn’t said what needed to be said (for the time being anyway) about long-term marriage, and mid-life preoccupations, and memory, and acceptance, and love. But finally—this was days later—I got it. “Instructions, As If” wanted to come in at 671 words, period, the end.

As for how it was born—I was about to give up, when I realized (here’s the funny part): there I was searching for clues, racking my brain, emailing students—do you remember the prompts from last fall…? I’m trying to figure out how I came up with “Instructions, As If…”—when the answer had been there all along, embedded in the title: Instructions! See? Here it is on a file card from that fat manila folder: Give directions or instructions to somebody you know, somebody you love, about something that’s important to you…

Dinah Lenney wrote Bigger than Life: A Murder, A Memoir and co-authored Acting for Young Actors. She teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars, the Rainier Writing Workshop, and the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC. Her new memoir, The Object Parade, will be published by Counterpoint Press in 2014.

AWP 2013: That Genre Thing Again

March 11, 2013 § 19 Comments

A guest blog from Kathleen Stone:

Fiction/nonfiction: what’s the difference?  If there’s a difference, does it matter?  And eiawp2013dther way, what responsibility does the author have to readers and subjects? 

By the third day of AWP, I thought I couldn’t bear to hear these questions discussed.  I thought Lawrence Weschler’s observation about narrative voice and the division of the world between those who know it’s a fiction and those who don’t had been chewed over enough to last me a lifetime.  But still, something drew me to the Why Genre Matters panel.  Maybe the names of the panelists, or something about the blurb in the conference book drew me in, but whatever it was, I grabbed another cup of coffee and soldiered on.

Nonfictionist and moderator Dinah Lenney led off with her own strong point of view.  An author and reader are like two people on a see-saw, with movement and balance between them.  When the author doesn’t clue us in, and we don’t know what we hold in our hands, then the see-saw is left with only one person — out of balance and disappointing.  There is a diff, and it matters.

Scott Nadelson countered with the oft-made observation that there is no such thing as objectivity.  A blurring between genres necessarily follows, and the author can rely on voice and form to tip off the reader to what’s on the page.  His recent book, The Next Scott Nadelson, A Life in Progress, may be labeled a memoir, but it comes without a guaranty of accuracy.  So maybe there’s no diff at all?

Essayist and critic Sven Birkerts analogized genre to etiquette.  Genre distinctions are like rules, necessary for maintaining harmony amid the tensions, but they need not be stultifying, even as please and thank you are not.  A psyche that invents and writes about a blue bucket is not very different from a psyche that remembers a blue bucket, but different motivations are at play – – this could have been vs. this happened.  Writers of both genres share the act of creation, of giving narrative shape to the work, but for nonfiction writers, the engine is memory.

Poet David Beispiel joined Scott in label bashing.  Writers should be free to write whatever they want and label it however they want (or perhaps not at all).  Labels exist for the bookseller who wants to know what to order and how to display it, not for the author or reader.  I wonder what he thinks about truth in politics – after all, he does write for Politico.

Multi-genre writer Judith Kitchen agreed Weschler was right about narrative voice being a fiction.  It’s simply a lens for delivery, involving an aesthetic decision but not a deliberate fabrication.  A flood she experienced as a child, which she has repeatedly and variously treated it in her own work, is an actual event seen through different lenses, sometimes intensely and sometimes in passing, but always drawn from memory.  Judith concluded with a segue to why we like memoir:  it takes the place of gossiping with a neighbor over the clothesline.  That clothesline is gone for most of us and we embrace memoir to fill the void.

So, I’m glad I grabbed another cup of coffee and pushed aside my conference fatigue on Saturday morning to hear Why Genre Matters.  Or maybe it doesn’t.  The panel offered one of the most heady and honest exchanges of AWP.

Kathleen Stone is a writer who lives in Boston.  Her work has been published in Points East, a sailing magazine, and she has dreams of many more publications to follow.

The Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction

January 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

Dinah Lenney

Dinah Lenney

First Prize: $1,000

Final Judge: Dinah Lenney

Deadline: Submissions must be entered by March 15, 2013.

All manuscripts will be read blindly; readers and editors will not see a contestant’s name or cover letter. The author’s name must not appear anywhere on the manuscript.

Maximum length for prose is 6,000 words. No previously published works, or works accepted for publication, are eligible. Work may be under consideration elsewhere, but MUST be withdrawn from the competition if accepted for publication. Current students, faculty or staff of WWU are not eligible to enter the contests. If you know the contest judge personally, please refrain from entering the contest.

Winners will be announced by July, 2013.

Complete guidelines here:  Bellingham Review

Improvising on a Life: Memoir as Performance

October 28, 2011 § 3 Comments

“First person narrative, memoir in particular, is like jazz; largely about the player, about where he riffs and scats, and how and why … As with jazz, the more specific and heartfelt the performance, the deeper and wider its impact.

“… as writers of nonfiction in the first person, we get to play, to scat, to take the solo, to emphasize the elements that ring true for us, to slide past the ones that don’t. A writer of memoir takes on personal history — that’s her script, her score — and uses her voice to inform those remembered events and to make them her own. She’s obligated to tell the truth, and she’s obligated to tell it her way.”

~ Dinah Lenney, from her remarkable essay Be Thou the Voice

The Mysterious (and Messy) Truth of Experience

May 31, 2011 § 2 Comments

Genzlinger and Moore Discuss memoir

The sharp, thoughtful and always to-the-point memoirist Dinah Lenney blogs this week on the recent (or recent-ish) genre attacks by Neil Genzlinger and Lorrie Moore, finding more common ground than most of us with Genzlinger and almost none with Moore.

Here she is on the former:

But it can’t be denied that there are people who come to the genre not because they’re devoted to language and literature, but because, in life, they have triumphed or survived in a way that they think is worth waxing on about; they want to testify: they have a single story to tell. However, this was not true of the authors Genzlinger reviewed at the beginning of this year, and … it was as disrespectful to lump their individual efforts together as typical or endemic, as it was unfair to condemn memoirists everywhere, just because, in his estimation, three writers had failed. But at least Neil Genzlinger’s criticism was straightforward. At least it had something to do with the actual demands of the genre. Though I cringed as I read—and second-guessed my own work—I knew where he stood.

And here she is on the latter:

As far as memoir goes, Lorrie Moore is simply off-track. Memoir is not biography or autobiography, real or imaginary. Moreover, memoir is, every time, at least as much about the narrator as it is about her subject. The writer is the subject, in fact—so it’s not her job to fully imagine, construct, or design, but rather to reveal (creatively, yes, this goes to the prose itself)  the mysterious (and messy) truth of her experience (in conjunction with fact-finding, sure) as it informs the way she thinks and feels. Whether or not the ostensible subjects of either of these books might inspire good fiction (absolutely, why not, another project for another day) is entirely beside the point. Furthermore, in the guise of equivocal appreciation, Lorrie Moore has disparaged not just the work of two writers but the form itself, apparently without understanding its singular constraints and rewards.

And here is Lenney’s full post from The Gamut.

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