Jennifer Percy’s Modern Love

December 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

nytOn Sunday mornings, everyone on the Brevity staff gets two-hours off from reading submissions, so we brew coffee and rip into the New York Times.  It has become rather commonplace (but always pleasing) to find a past Brevity contributor featured in the Times‘ outstanding Modern Love column. In the past, Modern Love has featured valued Brevitians such as Ann Bauer, Lori Jakiela, Gary Presley, & Tim Elhajj, to name just a few.

Anyway, this past Sunday we open our Times and are halfway through the Modern Love column when it hits us — “She’s in the next issue!”

So while you are waiting for Jennifer Percy’s wonderful essay “Closing Time ” to arrive in the January 2010 issue of Brevity, check out her intriguing  essay in Modern Love:

“I was so in love with you there,” he said one evening when I mentioned the place in the Midwest where we had met. He said that phrase often, and it always vaguely distressed me, as if he was suggesting that love was a label he could pass along freely from day to day, attaching it here and there in his memory.

I asked a friend about this and the friend said he thought it was better that way, about love, and how my boyfriend moved it around like an object. He told me he thought my boyfriend was honest, and that no one can ever love someone constantly, equally, at all times. It has to rise and fall and wax and wane to maintain its permanence. That is its permanence.

The full Modern Love essay is here.

Gary Presley’s Modern Love

November 29, 2009 § 5 Comments

We’ve been fans of Gary Presley’s writing for quite some time here at Brevity, including his essay from Brevity 25 and his insightful guest blogger posts found here, so we were indeed pleased to see his contribution to the New York Times‘ Modern Love column this morning.  The essay is clear, honest, smart, and well worth your time.

An excerpt:

And so it was that the man in a wheelchair, sardonic and standoffish, and the vibrant young woman who loved science and worried over how she would support her sons, developed an odd connection, a link to a place where hands might touch, but thoughts and feelings and emotions began to flicker like lightning beyond the horizon.

I was past 40, my anger and frustration over being paralyzed mostly burned away. But it never occurred to me that the friendship, the connection, between Belinda and me might also be the bridge between caution and passion, between isolation and connection.

“I really don’t see the chair,” Belinda said a few months after we met. “I see you.”

Take a moment and read the entire essay here at the New York Times.

Where Did I Leave My Truth

April 21, 2009 § 1 Comment

From Brevity contributor Gary Presley:

In the midst of reviewing Where Did I Leave My Glasses? for The Internet Review of Books, I stumbled upon a neurological star chart which might be useful for writers exploring the edge of the universe between truth and reality. Here is a sample:

” … computer remembers all or nothing. No in-between. Whereas the brain is filled with in-between. Think of it this way: What you put into the computer is an abstraction of your experience. Retrieve it, and it’s unchanged. What you remember is an abstraction of that experience, then a reconstruction of the abstraction, then a reconstruction of the reconstruction of the abstraction, and so on and on and on—every time you retrieve it. And of course, the more time that passes, the truer this becomes.”

I think regularly about the muddy mixture of objective fact and subjective truth as it applies to the art of creative nonfiction, particularly memoir. While I know a writer has the obligation to quote correctly and describe accurately, I also know that when we set out to explore the swamp of self, we often get tangled up in the jungle of emotions.

Ignore the book’s light-hearted title. Lear tackled the subject of memory by consulting psychologists and neuro-scientists of every stripe. It was especially fascinating to follow her as she explored the idea that our writing comes from the place where memory lives, which in Lear’s description is “palimpsest,” a tablet of layered text, each preceding layer imperfectly erased.

I love the art of memoir, in book form and in personal essay, but even pre-Frey, I approached the such works believing that the writer was telling only a truth rather than the truth. Lear’s work reinforces both my skepticism and my faith.

As a reader, I am forgiving, although not quite so cynical as Ambrose Bierce, who said truth is “an ingenious compound of desirability and appearance.”

But after reading Where Did I Leave My Glasses? I think I have moved away from the idea of “truths” to the point where I believe that “truths” are merely opinions about truths, but that doesn’t mean I will easily forgive you if you choose to lie to me.

Gary Presley‘s work has appeared once in Brevity, his thoughts about writing several times here on the Brevity‘s blog, and his book (Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio) from The University of Iowa Press and into bookstores.

On Narrators, Memoir, and the “Pretty Shabby Stuff” Inside

November 20, 2008 § 6 Comments

Author Gary Presley is an occasional contributor to both Brevity and the Brevity Blog, and author of Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio, new from the University of Iowa Press.  We recommend his memoir, and recommend his thoughts on sypathetic and unsympathetic narrators:

I help lead a group that discusses creative nonfiction. There’s about thirty of us exchanging emails, and we all profit in dissecting an essay or a book chapter every week. In fact, I’ve hit up (Brevity editor) Dinty W. Moore regarding his editing experiences, particularly about publishing a piece with an unattractive or unsympathetic narrator.

I always knew I could be a jerk, although I don’t think it really came through in my writing when I stuck to essays. What I did learn when I set out to write in a longer form, though, is interesting. It may be a tough gig to be a jerk in real life, it’s even tougher as being a jerk who wants to write a memoir.

I’m what’s referred to as a “polio quad,” most likely the result of what is now called a “vaccine accident.” That happened long ago and far away. As you might expect, it made me angry, bitter, and oftentimes frustrated with my lot. But that’s something I hide from most people most of the time, even when I wrote op/eds about disability issues.

One day, though, I was inspired to write a wry and ironic essay about one of the practicalities of using a wheelchair — the essay was entitled “A Pot to Pee in.”

Why? I think because I was in the mood to be honest, perhaps even to be honest with myself, which is a trait I urge on others but often avoid on my own. Something good came of it, though. I discovered readers like honesty. In fact, several in my critique group said, “This is good. You need to write a memoir.”

And so I did. It’s called Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio.

In writing the book, I did go beyond polio, down toward a place where I learned something about my life, about the person I had become, about living “boob-high to the world,” as my wife describes it.

What interested me, though, is more than one reader seemed puzzled over the anger and frustration and bitterness within the memoir. “That’s not the Gary I know.”

Sure enough. I was right. I am a jerk, at least sometimes, and thankfully mostly in private. I always knew there was wisdom in the novelist Peter DeVries’ observation, “Human nature is pretty shabby stuff, as you may know from introspection.”

But in writing the book, I also learned I am an observer, a person honest enough to recognize that element of jerkiness, forgive himself for it, and understand that by offering something “so bitingly honest that … readers sometimes cringe before turning the page … ” that I have been able to illustrate disability is a normal aspect with the human condition and to change a few minds about what it means to live with a disability, to recognize the need for equal access, and to think hard thoughts about institutional care and end-of-life issues.

Gary Presley
SEVEN WHEELCHAIRS: A Life beyond Polio
Fall 2008 University of Iowa Press

Creative. Nonfiction. Nothing New.

September 5, 2008 § 1 Comment

From Gary Presley, author of the new memoir Seven Wheelchairs:


I’m surprised no one in my writing discussion group has quoted Oscar Wilde to me. “I may have said the same thing before…but my explanation, I am sure, will always be different.”

Too often when we discuss the art of creative nonfiction, I say that people can roll on the ground, kick their heels, and scream “No!” but creative nonfiction was a real thing long before Gay Talese wrote the inimitable “Mr. Sinatra Has a Cold” or Tom Wolfe wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Take George Orwell’s “A Hanging.” Or better, read Ernie Pyle’s “The Death of Captain Waskow.”

Creative. Non. Fiction.

Both are as nuanced as Talese’s “Mr. Sinatra.” Talese doesn’t tell the reader that Sinatra is unstable, insecure, sometimes overbearing man with enormous talent, but a sophisticated reader sees all that, and more.

Ernie Pyle’s “Captain Waskow” provides art with the same layered dept, art that opens another window on the human condition, art offering up by the heart of a man worn down by war, a man telling us how hard it is sometimes to be a thinking-feeling creature on this earth.

Oh, there are differences, but those revolve more around subject than style. Talese’s essay on the Chairman of the Board pretends an intimacy that masks it’s ironic distance. Pyle’s lament for Waskow is about Waskow, but the good captain is also symbolic. Pyle substitutes empathy and compassion and stark reality for irony, but there is another deeper, more existentialist layer that allows the reader a glimpse in the mirror of mortality, a place where we each can glimpse our deaths smiling from behind the dark curtain of consciousness.

Gary Presley

From Gary Presley: Navel Gazing in Creative Nonfiction

July 6, 2008 § 16 Comments

A group of accomplished writers I pal around with in the virtual world recently discussed a longish essay about … well, about growing up under tough circumstances, which seems to be one of the primary themes within the genre. (Augusten Burroughs and A Wolfe at the Table, anyone?)

My reaction? I jumped into the fray waving the flag of anti-narcissism. So the author had a crappy childhood? As Mr Tolstoy said, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That she has made literature of it is good. That she has taught me to care, I’m not sure; or at least, I don’t care any more than I might about any other child growing up in similar circumstances. That she can write elegantly about the issue – granting that she may feel more deeply, feel more pain than a person less intelligent or sophisticated – surely provides some reconciliation unavailable to the less intelligent or talented.

Each time I stumble across creative nonfiction in a similar vein – and there’s millions of little pieces of that I had it tougher than you literature out there – I wonder “Is too much of our genre too centered on navel-gazing? And, the corollary question: “Is navel-gazing the antithesis of an intellectual pursuit?”

Or to put it another way, “Does the genre rely too much on memoir to be intellectually-influential in the way society perceives useful intellectualism?”

Or to put it a third way, “Are we memorists and navel-gazers getting a free ride on the coat-tails of John McPhee, Barry Lopez, Lewis Thomas, Edward Abbey, Edward Hoagland, Richard Selzer, Paul Theroux, et al?

Gary Presley

On Truth in Memoir: Remembrance and Amnesia

April 9, 2008 § 3 Comments

(Another note from Gary Presley, author of the Brevity essay Proselegy and Coda)

Funny things happen on the bumpy road from life to death, and being mauled by a grizzly bear would rank far down on my list of incidents to include in a memoir. But as part of a discussion group focused on creative nonfiction piece, I did read an interesting take on a bloody confrontation with Ursus arctos horribilis.

One member of the group asked, “Why do we read this stuff?” I knew what she meant. When I was a kid, I was a worry wart, and a kindly teacher once told me “Sufficient unto the day are the troubles thereof,” which I learned later she borrowed from the Holy Carpenter.

But the question also made me realize that I believe reading for information and knowledge may be secondary in the human dynamic. I think we crave Story. I think we seek to fill the same need once expressed around campfires thousands of years ago – when we had nothing to protect ourselves from grizzly bears and other things intent on blood and slaughter but a flint-pointed stick.

The thing is, every person has more than one Story, and sometimes, at least for me, I write and rewrite and edit so much that I feel as I’m drifting away from those memories that comprise who I am. By that I mean the the internal narrative I relate to myself, the film strip that unwinds in memory as I subjectively reconstruct what happened.

I begin to think, “Is it a true internal narrative, at least in the sense that readers will understand as true.”

Hold on now — I’m not going to go all Peggy Seltzer on you.

The quality I am attempting to describe is more akin to remembrance. We humans are prone to back-construct a narrative, one often more dramatic than what actually occurred – primarily because we need a memory with which we can live without huddling in a corner crying.

I’m a forgiving sort, and so understanding all the foibles which plague our fragile psyches, I think most internal narratives may consist of both remembrance and amnesia, missing perhaps some things so deeply painful or guilt-inspiring or less-than-heroic that we cannot face, explain, or even understand.

Obviously then, if there is an internal narrative, there is a narrative constructed from outside perceptions.

There are people I know who look through the window into the zoo enclosure where this creature named Gary Presley lives, and they glimpse a beast far different from the one shining in its internal narrative. There are windows for my wife, for my brother, for his wife, for my one-time boss — for every person who knew me “when” and those who knew me “then.”

Like every other human being, I am a prism. No single person (call that person a “biographer,” or classify that person as yourself with the memoirist label) will ever be able to construct a complete and unbiased and entirely truthful narrative of a human life.

I suppose – no, let’s say “I have faith” – that there is be One Mystic Ultimate Truth, but there are many truths. The best we can do is to find the truest part of our own when we want to set down our world on paper.

Gary Presley

Thoughts on Finding a Memoir’s Narrative Arc

February 19, 2008 § 10 Comments

From Gary Presley, author of the Brevity essay Proselegy and Coda

I’ve been banging my head against a memoir for two or three years – a book that’s only now crossed the copy-editing stage at the University of Iowa Press on the track to Fall 2008 publication (Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio). As with most things written, the book went through more drafts than I wanted to make – from connected, related essays into a chronological narrative.

During the last state, I told a writer friend, unless you’re famous and can sell a gaggle of essays, a memoir writer may not think he is living a life with a rational, non-repetitive narrative arc, but he best find one if he wants to be published.

She replied with a question, “How would you explain narrative arc?”

She asked me that because I’ve never studied creative writing. I doubt I’ll ever be as famous as Grandma Moses – the famous folk artist painter – but I use her technique, which might be called primitive.

With that in mind, I told her I think a chronological narrative would have a “time arc.” When I wrote 100,000 words as a “memoir in essays,” I would pick a subject about disability, look at it from every direction, and write about it. I had essays about the disease; its treatment; the hospital environment; the rehabilitation environment; isolation upon my return home; about education and employment; and some discussing the nitty-gritty of disability.

The editor first said “Masterful essays, but there’s too much repetition. Try a chronological narrative arc.” I tried, but I felt too close to the material. Then the editor said “It’s lost some of its passion. Make the chapters more like the essays.”

There was the rub. It took me a long time to understand that if anger and frustration occurred when I was in the iron lung at age 17 that I did not need to re-state the origins of that anger and frustration when I brought up an anecdote later.

If I could put the effort in the Wayback Machine, I would outline anecdotes on index cards. Then before I began to write, and I would shuffle the cards around and play with their order – both in theme and in time.

Within the terminology of “narrative arc,” I think, is the idea that we build our lives around themes. My theme was living as a person with a disability in 20th USA, but the sub-themes are anger, and duality (the idea that a virus killed then-17-year-old-Gary and created crip-Gary, who is an entirely different bag of tricks) and a prosaic existentialism.

How that might translate in another writer’s life I cannot say, but I know this: we are different people to each individual we know, both because of their perceptions and because of the way we reveal ourselves to them. With that, there are an infinite number of stories to weave into any narrative arc.

Further discussion can be found through Google with the search words “creative nonfiction” and “narrative arc” alone or together, including A Conversation with Rebecca McClanahan in the Kenyon Review and a nidus Roundtable Discussion — The Age of Creative Nonfiction.


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