Flash Nonfiction Illuminates, Like a Flash Gun

November 5, 2012 § 1 Comment

Jill Talbot interviews Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore about the intricacies of flash nonfiction and the new Rose Metal Press Field Guide.  Here’s an excerpt followed by a link to the full Bookslut interview:

In the first section of the anthology, “The Flash Nonfiction Form,” Bret Lott notes, “There ought to be an explosion of recognition, a burst of self-awareness that gives my reader the understanding that these few words she’s read have had hidden within them a realm far larger than any she could have imagined.” 

Bret’s definition is really a definition of all excellent art. A painting is taken in through the eyes, but can magically bloom, in the viewer’s brain, into words and sounds and aroma. A ballet is just movement of a dancer’s arms and legs and torso but can be translated, in our minds, into a universe of feelings and associations. Brief nonfiction prose tells a story, provides information, but that is only the surface of what is possible. The author is trying to create, though language, image, metaphor, the possibility for that “burst of self-awareness” that the term “flash” implies. It doesn’t just go by in a flash: it illuminates, like a flash gun.

The full Bookslut interview is here.

Fresh Nonfiction Field Guide Reviews

October 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by Brevity‘s editor and featuring numerous Brevity contributors is getting some nice reviews.

Amaris Ketcham at Bark writes:

“You may want to carry this book in your laptop bag or keep it in your glove box, for those times when you are waiting on a friend at the café or pulled over at a park during your lunch break. You will want a pen and a notebook on hand. Twenty-six writers have contributed sections, each of which feature an essay that examines the form, exercises, and an example of flash nonfiction. You’ll want to sit for a while with each of these sections, work through their exercises and surprise yourself during a freewrite, and then spend some time with each of the example essays.”

There is also this review from Lori A. May at the Wilkes University MFA Blog, and a second review, also from May, at the New Orleans Review in which she says:

“What this craft guide does well is in refraining from pigeon-holing the genre by suggesting strict guidelines or definitions. Yet in freedom there remains the challenge for writers to experiment and tinker—not always for the better. After all, what is “good” flash nonfiction? In his introduction, Moore addresses the one quality that appeals to both editors and readers: “the writer’s experience of the world made small and large at the same time.” Yet how many words does that take? Two hundred? Five hundred? A thousand?”

Launch Day (and Free Shipping) For Nonfiction Field Guide

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today is the big day! We are happy to announce the release of the eagerly anticipated The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction edited by Brevity’s Dinty W. Moore.  and including Barrie Jean Borich • Jenny Boully • Norma Elia Cantú • Rigoberto González •Philip Graham • Carol Guess • Jeff Gundy • Robin Hemley • Barbara Hurd • Judith Kitchen • Eric LeMay • Dinah Lenney • Bret Lott • Patrick Madden• Lee Martin • Maggie McKnight • Brenda Miller • Kyle Minor •Aimee Nezhukumatathil • Anne Panning • Lia Purpura • Peggy Shumaker • Sue William Silverman • Jennifer Sinor • Ira Sukrungruang • Nicole Walker, many of them past Brevity contributors.

Today and tomorrow only! Get free shipping on your Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction order using coupon code LAUNCHDAY when you check out!

More from the Rose Metal site:

 Unmatched in its focus on a concise and popular emerging genre, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction features 26 eminent writers, editors, and teachers offering expert analysis, focused exercises, and helpful examples of what make the brief essay form such a perfect medium for experimentation, insight, and illumination. With a comprehensive introduction to the genre and book by editor Dinty W. Moore, this guide is perfect for both the classroom and the individual writer’s desk—an essential handbook for anyone interested in the scintillating and succinct flash nonfiction form. How many words does it take to tell a compelling true story? The answer might surprise you.

 ATTEND A FIELD GUIDE READING!

Dinty W. Moore and a multitude of contributors to The Field Guide will be reading at a number of venues this fall and winter, including stops in Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Columbus, Ohio. Dates and details here.

Turning Fact Into Fiction: Aaron Teel’s Shampoo Horns

August 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

Aaron Teel’s new chapbook, Shampoo Horns, winner of the Sixth Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest, contains a version of a powerful essay published many years back in Brevity, “The Widow”s Trailer.” Teel changed that essay some, along with other early work based in memoir, to fit into a fictional narrative, and he published the chapbook as fiction. Teel is one helluva writer; the book is startling, vivid, sharp as a chicken’s teeth, and the prose is on fire. Thinking that Teel’s decision to move to the fictional frame was an interesting jumping off point for discussion of genre, Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore asked to interview Teel and explore his decision.

MOORE:  I’m curious why you now call the essay, included in the chapbook, fiction, and what you’ve changed now that it has been re-categorized?

TEEL: Thanks Dinty, I’m really grateful to you for publishing that piece. It was the second one I’d written from this collection, after ‘Tater’s Nipple.’  The responses I got from those two pieces were sort of the impetus for the rest. I was reading a lot of Nabokov at the time, and I had this idea that I wanted to write my own kind of Nabokovian memoir inspired by the early chapters of Speak, Memory. But instead of being about a kid surrounded by servants and a comfortable aristocratic life in the Russian countryside, it’d be about a kid growing up in a trailer park, in Texas– but still with the lush sensory detail, word play, and fragmented, self-contained stories that added up to a larger narrative. After about five or six pieces were written, I kind of hit a wall with it and lost the inspiration. I put it away for about a year. When I came back to it, I had the idea that it needed a traumatic central and symbolic event that everything else could spin around. A tornado just made the most sense. I also changed the names of the characters to put a layer of distance on them, and that was really freeing. Wherever that nebulous line between fiction and creative nonfiction lies, I was pretty sure I had crossed it at that point, so the whole thing had to be called fiction. I was never interested in writing ‘essays’ or using any kind of journalistic approach. It was more about mining my own experience for inspiration. I struggled with that for a while, but I think now that I probably stayed truer to my Nabokovian ideal than I would have otherwise, unless you believe he literally lost a butterfly when he was a kid that he found forty years later, halfway around the world.

MOORE: Your decision to add the tornado as a central event is a beautiful illustration of how sticking to the nonfiction account of life can reveal one truth and how moving the story into the fictional realm can reveal a different truth, neither being better nor worse than the other. What did bringing in the tornado allow you to see about your childhood story that you might not have seen had you not made that choice?

TEEL: I agree with you completely about fiction and non-fiction revealing different but equally valid truths.

The tornado was more of an organizing device than anything else, and a convenient metaphor for adolescence, the sense of having your life dictated by forces beyond your control. It also fit nicely into the trailer park motif. I liked the idea of playing with some of the clichéd trailer park associations, but presenting them in a way I hadn’t seen before.

MOORE: And if you had stuck to the truth – the truth of your memory, at least – how do you think the book would have resolved itself differently?

TEEL: I don’t know if it allowed me to see anything I hadn’t seen about my own childhood experience as much as it provided an objectified symbol for some of the emotions I wanted to convey and allowed me to do it succinctly. I’m not sure how the book would have resolved without that frame either, which is probably why I put it away for so long before coming back to it as fiction.

Shampoo Horns at Rose Metal Press

~ * ~

Field Guide to Flash NF Launches Soon

August 23, 2012 § 3 Comments

The book is at the printer right this moment, and Rose Metal Press has opened the pre-order process.  The Brevity corporate towers are awash in champagne and caviar this morning, and much dancing:

ORDER HEREThe Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by the invaluable Dinty W. Moore, is a lot more than flashy. These thoughtful, thought-provoking essays and exercises have the paradoxical effect of slowing down our attention and encouraging an expansion of the moment, while seeming to be saving writing and reading time. A very useful compilation.”

Phillip Lopate, author of Art of the Personal Essay

“Flash-in-the-pan? Hardly. The flash nonfiction genre has staying power, and The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction will show you why. Opening with a thorough and informative history of the genre, renowned writer, editor, and teacher Dinty W. Moore assembles a cast of writers who share their expertise, suggest writing exercises, and provide exemplary mod­els of the best flash nonfiction being written today. This book is required reading for any writer, editor, or teacher of the brief nonfiction form.”

Rebecca McClanahan, author of The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings and Word Painting

On When Writing Can be Abandoned

July 31, 2012 § 5 Comments

 

Brevity editor and founder Dinty W. Moore discusses A Buddhist Take on Writing in Psychology Today.

So which is true: know when it is time to fold the tent, or never give in—never, never, never, never? How does one know which rule applies? How can anyone be sure of when to stubbornly move forward on a plan versus when it is wisest to shrug and call it quits?

This is a hard question for writers, myself included. I know from experience that it is wise to not give up on any project too early. The fruits of multiple revisions, of fresh eyes, of those wonderful breakthroughs where after months of struggle you suddenly see exactly what a manuscript needs, are real and they are part of the magic and joy of being a writer (or really a creative person of any sort). But sometimes you have to move on. Sometimes you have to say to yourself, “This is not a failure, because I’ve learned so much from trying, but at the same time it is never going to be the story I want it to be.”

In both instances, I think it is a matter of faith, and a matter of having that faith without what Buddhists call “attachment,” the insistence that only a particular outcome is acceptable. In one instance, you have to have the faith that dogged and determined work will get you to the goal, even as the goal seems to be moving further away rather than nearer. In the other instance, you have to have faith in yourself, believing that a major setback will not lead to an eternity of failure, that setting one idea aside will be rewarded by another idea coming in eventually to take its place.

Either outcome is an achievement; you move forward and succeed, or you succeed later, under different circumstances. But too often we cling—attach—to one outcome, and end up drowning ourselves in a sea of disappointment because we grow too tired to swim anymore. Well maybe we can’t swim, but often we can still pull ourselves over to the side of the pool, crawl out, and rest a while on the cool tiles.

 

Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction

June 28, 2012 § 8 Comments

Here’s a sneak peek at the newest Brevity-related book project, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by Brevity founder and editor Dinty W. Moore. The book publishes in September and preorders will begin in August.

The new Field Guide contains craft essays on writing flash nonfiction from these esteemed writers, editors, and teachers in the nonfiction field:

Barrie Jean Borich, Jenny Boully, Norma Cantú, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Carol Guess, Jeff Gundy, Philip Graham, Robin Hemley, Barbara Hurd, Judith Kitchen, Eric LeMay, Dinah Lenney, Bret Lott, Patrick Madden, Lee Martin, Maggie McKnight, Brenda Miller, Kyle Minor, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Anne Panning, Lia Purpura, Sue William Silverman, Jennifer Sinor, Peggy Shumaker, Ira Sukrungruang, and Nicole Walker.

Stay tuned!

Our Fearless Leader Speaks of “Non-Attachment”

May 2, 2012 § 7 Comments

Brevity founder, editor, and slushpile slave-driver Dinty W. Moore talks of writing and non-attachment at the Inside Higher Ed blog today.  Here’s a portion where he diagnoses John Warner’s recent writing block:

JW: I’m going to take advantage of your expertise by sharing my current personal hang-up. I published a novel in the Fall to marginal acclaim, and I have two other projects very close to completion that my brain won’t allow me to finish, I believe, because I’m concerned that I’ll have a hard time publishing them. I work on them all the time, but the finish line gets further away as I rework and rethink. I generally enjoy the process, but I fear the completion. What do you think I should be mindful of with these projects?

DWM: That goes back to the essential Buddhist teachings of non-attachment. You, John, are attached to a particular outcome – something beyond “marginal acclaim.” Trust me, I’ve wrestled this devil myself, time and again. Well, remember this: you can’t control publishing and all of the industry madness. You can’t control the New York Times Book Review. You can’t control bookstores, or Amazon, or readers’ whims. So what can you control?  You can control your own reactions to these outside forces. If these realities drive you up a wall, remember that it is a wall you can choose to disassemble. Just take it down, brick by brick. You can’t control whether your next book is the sort of success defined by big sales, splashy parties, glowing reviews, and industry buzz, but you can control whether you define success in those terms. If you define success outside of these external forces, you can achieve that success within your own control: a book that you are proud of, a book that speaks truth, a book with elegant sentences. Easier said than done? You bet, but if success for every author is only achieved when we hit #1 on the bestseller list and have agents fighting over our next novel, then by definition 99% of us are going to be miserable and dejected all of our writing lives. What a waste. So with these two books, be mindful of how you define success, and what you can control.  If you are not attached to a very particular outcome, you are more able to enjoy and appreciate whatever outcome comes along.

What is Given: Against Knowingly Changing the Truth

April 20, 2012 § 27 Comments

 Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore responds to Jill Talbot’s blog essay, Border Crossings: Fiction and the Literature of Fact.

I admire Jill Talbot for moving the debate on truth in nonfiction away from generalized and sometimes vague pronouncements. By providing actual examples of what she has done with her work and what she sees as suitable, we can finally discuss specifics.  (Yes, the writer and the fact-checker in our latest scandal discuss specifics, but the hyperbole and play-acting creates little more than a cloud of disingenuous smoke.)

So thank you, Jill Talbot.  But on many of your specifics, I thoroughly disagree.

Jill is right that the border between truth and fiction is merely a line somewhere, and unlike those national borders that are well-defined by river or mountain range, the line between Fiction-Land and Nonfiction-Land better resembles the border between two desert nations.  Somewhere out there on that sand dune is the line, and there may come a point where one has trouble discerning clearly whether he is on one side, or the other side, or straddling the line itself. The sand itself can shift right under you.

To pick and choose which scenes to include is a fiction, a necessary fiction, because it didn’t really happen that way. It happened with all of that boring stuff included, but to shape a narrative I’ve pulled the boring bits out.  The same applies to dialogue.  To include every word spoken–let’s pretend you had a tape recorder running during a family argument–would overwhelm a reader and make for a less interesting, less understandable scene. So we edit. The very act of writing a memoir, to say “this is my life,” is a fiction of sorts as well, since it is not your life, it is just some chosen moments, translated into words and subjective description.

But there is to me a difference between the necessary picking and choosing, editing, highlighting, arranging, and subjectively describing that goes into the “creation” of creative nonfiction and knowingly inventing. To knowingly invent, in my view, is to cross that line entirely, and suddenly you are standing in Fiction-Land, even if only a few feet in.

Jill’s first major example–attributing a comment overheard in rehab to a student rather than to herself–is a problematic one. I sympathize with her wanting privacy and feeling a need to withhold her own rehab experience in the context of an anthology introduction. And I suppose it doesn’t matter who overheard the comment on James Frey; the impact of the comment is not changed. But while I easily endorse the need for a writer to occasionally protect the privacy of a friend or family member, I feel uncomfortable with an author protecting herself. That’s a slippery slope for sure.

Jill’s other examples are more clear-cut for me. There is a key difference between the impact of boyfriend saying “Your family needs to drink,” and the wife of a cousin saying it. As Jill herself acknowledges, the gravity of the remark changes.  So it is not accurate to so neatly change the source.  It is not necessary either, but that’s another story.

Jill then gives an example where she changes red wine to chardonnay.  Not exactly water into wine, but harmless enough I think.  Still, why?  And she changes the titles of the library books she is returning.  Granted, Linda Hutcheons’ “Incredulity toward Metanarrative: Negotiating Postmodernism and Feminisms” is a mouthful, and changing to Joyce Carol Oates is harmless enough, but why the change to “checking on a missing copy” of the book?  I’m baffled by the easy step across borders in that alteration. What does the fact that a book is missing suggest, and what does it mean that this “disappearance” is invented?

My concern that these minor changes lead to a Nonfiction-Land where a writer feels comfortable making slightly larger, more significant changes is borne out in the next example.

Jill quotes from her own essay:

I told her I remember my mother taking me once to a lake outside her home town in East Texas when I was about her age and that once, I dated a guy in college who tried, impatiently, to teach me to cast, fly-fishing style.

And then explains:

Actually, that guy was during my graduate school years, but a college self, in my mind, connotes a younger, less experienced self who is learning more than just the Gen Ed requirements. And the guy was very, very patient. I was the impatient one.

Well yes, a college self does denote a “younger, less experienced self who is learning more than just the Gen Ed requirements,” but it also changes the essence of the scene, as does the detail of who was impatient, and the scene becomes a fiction, something invented to illustrate a truth, not a truth in and of itself.

I am not Chief Guardian of the Border, but if I were, Jill Talbot’s passport would be confiscated until we sorted out exactly why she crosses the border so frequently, without clearly notifying the proper authorities (which, in this metaphor, would be the readers.)

Jill Talbot ends with a lyric, lovely paragraph in which she explores an evening where the shadows of trees on the snow unsettled her, and explores why she had written earlier that it was the tree branches themselves.  And then she quotes Mark Slouka:

There is no map–read as you may, write what you will.

The difference here? For me, there is a map.  The map can’t be drawn, but it can be expressed in words:

You work with what is given to you. You arrange the puzzle pieces taken from the nonfiction box without reaching over into the fiction box, as tempting as it may be. You do your best to pull up honest memory. Though we know memory’s weakness, at least don’t lie about what you think you remember.  When you are not sure, you tell the reader. When you want to change something, explore why you want to change it. Fiction approaches a certain sort of truth, and thank goodness we have fiction, but it is not the same truth that nonfiction attempts. Know the difference. As a nonfiction writer, you will surely make mistakes, get things wrong, remember poorly, but to do it knowingly, that’s crossing the line.

 Thanks for listening, Jill.  Let us all discuss.

D’Agata’s Trickery and Manipulations: Dinty W. Moore Speaks Out

February 27, 2012 § 171 Comments

Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore responds to the John D’Agata brouhaha:

This argument makes me entirely uncomfortable.  I have no wish to be the voice in the room that says “Oh, art has limitations,” and I do believe that literary nonfiction writing is art.

So what John D’Agata has done in About a Mountain, and how he frames his approach in The Lifespan of a Fact, has unsettled me for some time.  To say “No, no, you can’t do that in nonfiction, even nonfiction that is art,” makes me feel wholly uneasy, too much like the fellow who encounters Marcel Duchamp at the Armory Show and complains that he has broken all of the rules.

That’s not a comfortable place for me.

But I still object to D’Agata’s stance, and so – without snark or outrage – I’m going to try here to nail down exactly why.

To begin, I wish there was another name, another genre, one that didn’t include the word nonfiction or essay in it, where John D’Agata could experiment all that he wishes.  But we have a labeling problem.

It is all well and good for D’Agata to insist that he is not writing nonfiction as the rest of us see it, that the reader should know that and understand upfront that they have entered fact-shifting territory, but consider:

  1. D’Agata teaches in the Nonfiction Writing program at Iowa, a visible, important program.  That doesn’t mean he can’t write something other than nonfiction, of course, but clearly, absent any other signal, people are going to think, okay, this fellow writes nonfiction.
  2. His publisher, W. W. Norton, presents About a Mountain, with language such as this: “… an investigation of Yucca Mountain and human destruction in Las Vegas … Bearing witness to the parade of scientific, cultural, and political facts that give shape to Yucca’s story, D’Agata keeps the six tenets of reporting in mind-Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How-arranging his own investigation around each vital question.” Where in that description are we cued into the fact-shifting experiment?
  3. The book, for the most part, reads like a work of literary memoir/journalism, situating us early on in D’Agata’s childhood and filling us right away with numbers and facts about location and population. It does not resemble the sort of lyric essay D’Agata championed at The Seneca Review, and does not – to my reading — signal genre hybridity.

Why is this a problem?  What concerns me is not that D’Agata has done this – he can write what he writes as he wishes – but that he has gone so public, so big, so “in your face” and aggressive about his lofty goals to create a new art space.  The rest of us are somehow stupid for not understanding his project, he seems to suggest, especially in his dialogue with the fact-checker.

D’Agata has to know that this plays conveniently into the hands of so many who would diminish our field:

—  those on the political right who criticize journalists for “just making everything up,” as if those women never did accuse Herman Cain, or as if the President’s birth certificate had not been verified over and over.

— Those who want to discount the entire memoir category as baloney because memory is not a perfect tool.  Many, many beautiful books have been denigrated in this skirmish.

— Those – and yes, this is an inside-academe concern, but it is real – who want to suggest that nonfiction is not art or literature, not a valid area of study.  Even at Iowa, nonfiction is segregated from the vaunted Writers’ Workshop and housed in a separate department. Creative nonfiction is still a new field, and it has not been wholly embraced or accepted.

Why gives these folks such an easy target, so much new ammunition?

This will all blow over eventually, I imagine, and the discussion itself is a good one to have every now and then, but my opinion – and this is just my opinion – is that John D’Agata is trying to have it both ways: he is a prominent educator in an important Nonfiction Program, he publishes books in the nonfiction category, he writes in a voice and style, in About a Mountain at least, that reads like literary journalism, and then when called on for his changing of facts, large and small, he throws up his hands and seems to say, ”What’s wrong with you, why can’t you see that I am not writing that kind of nonfiction?”

A simple disclaimer, hard to miss, at the front of the book, would have solved everything.

But John D’Agata knows that.

He is selling a lot of books.  He is getting ripped by the New York Times here and here.  He is angering  folks.

Do I want a world where genre distinctions, the place of the essay in the nonfiction spectrum, and the role of artistry in nonfiction writing can be debated?  Yes, I most certainly do.

But I am distressed by how John D’Agata is raising the question, by his seeming disrespect for the rest of us, his dismissal of legitimate concerns and questions, by the fact that even his discussion with the fact-checker turns out later to have been fabricated, and by his idea that art has to “trick” us.

Will the world of nonfiction writing and those of us who value it survive this brouhaha?  Of course.  But I reserve the right to complain, and to call something a self-promotional manipulation, when I see it that way.

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