Working on Your Memoirs?

September 15, 2013 § 7 Comments


Kohler, our favorite source for plumbing fixtures, has a stately, comfort height, two piece, round front new toilet available, so what do they call it? Kohler Memoirs (c).  Here at the Brevity corporate towers, we plan to redo the executive washroom immediately.

Nonfiction’s Hall of Shame

August 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

Lee Gutkind has a new book, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, and an article post up on Huffington Post tied to a Hall of Fame of Literary Fabricators and Fakers.  The folks you expect to be there in the Hall of Fake Shame show up, such as James Frey and Herman Rosenblat, but there are a few you might not expect, including Lillian Hellman and the New Yorker‘s Alistair Reid.  Here is a brief excerpt followed by the link:

I love the first chapter of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. It’s mostly about Bob Dylan, how he got inspired to write some of his songs, including “Like a Rolling Stone.” There’s one scene where he rips his notes into pieces and scatters them around the room in frustration. Very authentic, terrific stuff, and, unfortunately, as Lehrer recently admitted–untrue.

Why lie–especially about an American icon–information that can be easily verified or questioned?

Lehrer had a thesis to support about the spontaneity of creativity, and he wanted to tell a good story at the same time–which is what the creative nonfiction genre is all about. But style and substance sometimes don’t come together so easily–and so Lehrer took the easy road, which was also the low road…

Lee Gutkind’s Hall of Fame of Literary Fabricators and Fakers

Border Crossings: Fiction and the Literature of Fact

April 18, 2012 § 12 Comments

A guest post from Jill Talbot, author of Loaded: Women and Addiction and the brand new Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, and St. Lawrence University faculty member.  Talbot argues in this response to the truth-in-nonfiction debate that we all “slip across the border at times,” and we are pleased to offer her detailed and honest account here.  Later this week, Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore will discuss where he disagrees with Talbot, and — we hope — an excellent and honest dialogue will ensue.


By Jill Talbot

Four years ago, Charles Blackstone and I published The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together (University of Texas, 2008). In my introduction to that genre-defying anthology, I wrote this:

A couple of years ago, I sent a piece that I had written as an essay, then later revised into a story, to a journal. The editors’ response: “This appears to be creative nonfiction rather than short fiction though we do welcome nonfiction submissions.” Clearly, I hadn’t fooled anyone. A year later, when I had a creative nonfiction piece that I thought worked quite well for the journal, I sent it to the nonfiction editor. Response: “Thank you for your fiction submission. We felt the characters weren’t really developed and thought you might move the part of the husband leaving to the opening of the story.”

A few months ago, someone I follow on Twitter RTd a submission call from Matter. And in perusing their submission guidelines, I came across this:

From Matter Press: Please be sure to submit in the correct category; we’ve been receiving several fiction submissions in the creative nonfiction category.

I copy/pasted this border-patrol warning and sent it to Charles to get his reaction, as we remain invested in what we now simply call “friction.” Within minutes, Charles wrote back: “It’s sad that editors are still forcing writers to submit, literally, to genre. If the publication claims to want all forms of prose, why even sift them like that?”

Another excerpt from my introduction to Friction:

Recently, I received an e-mail rejection from a nonfiction journal. Reason: “Your piece reads like fiction, and our readers would read it as such. We do not accept unsolicited fiction.” I thought I had submitted to a creative nonfiction journal. And while the piece was indeed a personal essay, I had employed the third person “She” in order to examine my own actions from a few years back. Experimental, sure, but (1) I wanted to evoke some kind of distancing, my persona’s refusal to claim her own actions’ effect, and (2) I wasn’t anticipating any discrimination for what the editors assumed was subversive genre swapping. These editors proclaimed what they represented as a protection of their readership. As if to say, we can’t have our readers out there reading a piece in our journal as if it’s fiction. Even if we tell them it’s CNF, they’ll read it as fiction. Thanks for submitting.

After receiving Charles’s reply, I began looking up submission guidelines, noting that most, yes, have separate submission categories for fiction and nonfiction.

Yet Hotel Amerika, edited by David Lazar, limits its submission guidelines to the following:

           We welcome submissions in all genres of creative writing, generously defined.

In 2009, HA published a Transgenre Issue (7.2), noting a “focus on work that explodes traditional boundaries of generic convention.”

Another publication, DIAGRAM, includes the usual suspects on its submissions manager: poetry, fiction, essay, image, and–wait for it–indeterminate. I like the freedom here, that a writer can write a piece without knowing what it is or is trying to be, it just is. A nice nod from the DIAGRAM staff–a get out of genre free card, which is helpful if you’re caught crossing the border without a passport (and what is that in our current literary climate?  A disclaimer in the preface?   The words, “a novel,” somewhere on the front cover?)

At the end of every creative nonfiction course I teach, I require students to submit an essay to a journal of their choice.  I point them to Essay Daily, Ander Monson’s blog that has a blog list titled:  Homes for the Essay.  I tell my students to begin by perusing these journals, such as River Teeth, Quarterly West, Witness, ones that definitely accept nonfiction.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about one line from that Friction introduction: “If I make anything up, it’s still true.”

That line is followed by the following section:

A student of mine had come back from Christmas break after a stint in rehab. When James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces was shot down by, my student came to my office after a discussion in my nonfiction class of the ramifications of the media maelstrom. “I actually read Frey’s book while I was in rehab,” he told me, something I’m sure he didn’t want to share in class, which was unfortunate, though fair. After all, wouldn’t an addict in a rehabilitation facility be an expert on the truth of Frey’s foray into the addict mind? My student told me that the book had been kind of a passed-around contraband in rehab, because Frey so vehemently disparages the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, the foundation of most rehabilitation facilities. My student told how he’d borrowed the book from a fellow drunk, read it in two days, and passed it on—and so on it went. He said, “My counselor said that all the AA old-timers say Frey’s gonna go back to drinking. He’s gonna crash.” To me, well to all of us the student told, this was the debate about Frey’s book. “I mean here we all were locked up for twenty-eight days, and Frey essentially says that you have a choice: drink or don’t. And he hasn’t. At least that’s what he claims in the book. But none of that matters to me. What I took from it was I had a choice, too.”

Actually, it was me who read that in rehab, and I attributed my experiences and what my counselor told me to a student. At the time, I wasn’t ready to admit rehab, and I didn’t think it would serve the anthology well to have an introduction written by someone who had lost her way in such a way.

Last semester, a student wrote a nature essay in which she admitted to fictionalizing in an essay about the lurking of elk as a metaphor for unrequited love.  A beautiful line, “Like an elk hiding a few feet away under the cover of dense trees, we can hide how closely we think we are to those we love.” The other day I e-mailed her in hopes of getting her perspective on two of her workshops, one in which I encouraged her to fictionalize (shape?) and one in which I did not allow her to (invent?).  My subject line:  Remind Me.

There was a lot in the elk piece that I tried to fictionalize, including how many people were there.  The girl that Ben started dating didn’t actually spend the night at the cabin with us, but I claimed she did.  I said that I “watched her catch his eye” which was true when we were home, but I continue to say, “lighting up his face as she unexpectedly burst into the dark sky.”  Even though she wasn’t there, you told me this worked well with the piece because he had the same reaction of excitement and awe at the fireworks as he did when he was with her.

During her next essay workshop, one about a night when she was fourteen and her father stopped at a bar, the Wig Wam, while taking her back to her mother’s house, she fictionalized the name of a bartender and the name of a man at a bar, and neither rang true. Those names she had assigned glaring like neon signs in a bar window—too bright and shaky.  At fourteen, I told her, you’re scared and in a strange place—you’re more likely to remember how the girl bartender looked, how the man at the bar seemed to you.  “You can’t just make stuff up,” I told her and the class, “It’s false, and it reads so.”  She looked at me in fierce frustration, squinted her eyes even.  In that same e-mail, she recalled the workshop:

 Right, originally I tried naming the girl bartender and I had also made up the man’s name, because, being the subject of the piece, I figured that the readers would want a way to hold on to him somehow.  But you told me not to fictionalize the name (leave it as “the man from the bar”) because it added to the part about being okay to not remember his name.

The respective lines in the now-published essay read:

“When he tells you you’ll only be there for ten minutes, he swears. Walk  inside and choose a seat near the pretty bartender who is the only other girl  in the place.”

 “When you don’t answer, he’ll look down into his foggy glass filled with something brownish, and when he tells you his name, know that it’s okay to forget.”

Those are true.  On both levels:  experientially and artistically.

Last semester, during a weekly meeting of The Laurentian, the St. Lawrence University student literary magazine, the senior editors for the genres (art, poetry, fiction, nonfiction) gave their submission/acceptance reports, I noted that the students kept using the phrase “nonfiction story.” After the meeting, I approached the Editor, asking her to please clarify with the staff the distinction between story and essay.

“Oh, she said. I’ve never thought about that. Is that the official word for nonfiction?”

I suddenly felt like a guard, standing watch to ensure that no one came into the wrong country, as if by insisting on certain signifiers such as “story” and “essay,” we won’t need that 2,000 mile genre fence. I kept it simple and said, “Yes.” Then she said, “I always use the term ‘pieces’ when referring to any prose genre.” I concurred, told her that I use that term anytime I teach a “slippery” work. Pam Houston’s pieces come to mind.

Not long ago, I had dinner with Mark Slouka, our Viebranz Visiting Writer and 2011 recipient of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the art of the essay for Essays from the Nick of Time: Reflections and Refutations (Graywolf Press). We’re swapping student stories (rather the stories we tell about their attempts at storytelling), and he tells of a young woman who visited his office struggling with her short story assignment. She wanted to write a story based upon a house fire during her childhood. The details were fascinating and Slouka suggested she write it in a “personal essay voice.” I spoke up: “Why not suggest she write an essay?” Slouka: “Right. I mean, what’s the difference. We all fictionalize.”

Here are some more examples from my memoir manuscript in progress:

My family treats alcohol as if it doesn’t exist, which reminds me of a boyfriend who told me, “Your family needs to drink.”

Actually, it was my cousin’s wife, but I didn’t like the clunkiness of that description in the sentence. And I thought the narrative of the boyfriend saying it would resonate an outsider making an observation.

Finally, I had his voice in my head on nights I’d sit on the back porch, drinking glass after glass of chardonnay and listening to his accusation on the phone that it was I, not him, who wanders, who moves from place to place and can never settle down long enough to establish consistency.

Actually, I was drinking red wine during those months, mostly Big House Red, though my writing self has become loyal to one-grape, and that grape is chardonnay.

The other day, Indie and I were at the university library circulation desk, where I was checking on a missing copy of a Joyce Carol Oates book.

Actually, I was checking out a faculty laptop and returning two Linda Hutcheon books on metanarratives and postmodern theory, but while I was writing this essay, Charles was reading Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir about her husband’s death, so the author was in my mind.

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.

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.

I was always staring out windows in school, wondering what might be going on beyond where I was and what I knew. I’d watch scenes play out in secret, the lone girl clutching a folder to her chest as she hurried to class, the stone house across the street, the choir teacher’s husband bringing her lunch.

Actually, the choir teacher’s husband came to eat with her in the school cafeteria, and my friends and I would laugh at his bright green pants, naming him “Mr. Green Jeans.” It’s a memory that stands out to me, but I needed to place him where I could view him through a window, not across a junior high cafeteria in green pants, where he will always remain in my mind.

Charles has been telling me for years that what I write is fiction.

One more, you’ll note the “Actually,” is part of the writing here:

Maybe it’s because I’ve never written about the moment I knew he was gone. I’ve written an entire book around it, eschewing that indelible scene of one morning and instead focusing the lens on its prologue: the patterns and the choices that preceded, might have precipitated, or the epilogue of emptiness ushered in after it, that one line in chapter sixteen, describing the tree in my front yard in winter, its “branches spread across the snow” that reminded me of “reaching for nothing.” Actually, that night, sitting on the front porch with wine and my despair hours into Indie’s sleep, it was the shadows of those empty branches splayed across the blank canvas of the snow that unsettled me. That moment’s stillness was a suspension, a precarious scene with the weight of all my wine shivering against such a delicate portrait.

Jack Kerouac wrote in a letter: “the details are the life of any story.” And since I’m writing my own life, I control the details, and I’ve fictionalized my personal history. Who hasn’t (in writing and at cocktail parties)? But where does personal history become fictional story?

One final anecdote, I promise, and this from a cocktail party (where I’m sure I fictionalized myself in more than one way during the course of the evening). When a colleague, from The Czech Republic, found out what I teach at St. Lawrence, he laughed, “I always think it’s amusing that the English word, nonfiction, is a definition in the negative. It’s NOT fiction, that’s it. So what does that mean?” Well, I asked, what is it in Czech? “The literature of fact.”

I’m not addressing here Alex Heard’s screed against David Sedaris’s “exaggerations.”  Nor John D’Agata’s “facts.”  Nor the ways in which writers have been excoriated for falsified events, personas.  What I am addressing, perhaps, is:  Don’t we all, fiction and nonfiction writers alike, sneak across the border now and then?

Are we required to declare at the crossing?   Or are we all, a little bit country, a little bit that other country?

There are many countries here when you consider all the boundaries that are drawn and redrawn, shaped and shifted.

I’m reminded of a line from Slouka’s “Eclogue”:

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

Riding in Cars with a Memoirist

October 2, 2011 § 2 Comments

Beverly Donofrio, author of Riding in Cars with Boys, talks memoir, Frey, and how memory is shaped into story over at Hippocampus magazine:

What are your thoughts on how the genre has changed over the years?

Bev: I think it’s become more and more artful; it’s constantly stretching its boundaries, morphing into new structures, blurring the lines between genres. I used to think of memoir as the novelization of one’s life. But I don’t think that anymore; the form expands and bends and, although it’s about telling the truth in a narrative form, there’s much free associating and poetry, reportage, essayistic writing, history outside of one’s own that can be woven, or plopped or jack-hammered in.

Amye: What do you think of writers like James Frey, who was discovered to have invented much of his memoir? How important is absolute truth in memoir?

Bev: I think James Frey should be shot. And his editor imprisoned or at least fined. I read that book and knew within fifty pages it was fiction. I do not believe his editor didn’t know that too. I think he should be made to give every penny he earned to Pen International or some worthy writers organization for making us all so embarrassed at how easy it is to lie and have it be perceived as true—and for shamelessly portraying himself in his book as such a macho. Please. On the other hand, like all shit storms, it has its positive side. It’s forced a discussion about what one can legitimately do in a memoir. Although one tries to tell the truth in order to make a story readable, one must choose what is told and what omitted, enforce a structure, a story arc, impose meaning on raw life. One compresses time and recreates scenes from memory, and whole swaths of dialogue. At least I do. I may remember a key line or two but for the rest of it, I ask myself, “What did I and everyone else there probably say?” Once I begin writing, I believe that what I wrote is very likely what I now remember. I realize this may be delusional but I don’t tell out and out lies, and I don’t make scenes up from whole cloth, and I try really hard not to make myself into someone better or worse than I am and not to make others different from how I truly see them. But, as we know, vision, perception, memory are all selective whether we want it to be or not.


A Fray Over Frey’s Play to Prey on M.F.A.’s

November 17, 2010 § 3 Comments

Elise Blackwell offers a sensible, clear-eyed take on James Frey’s latest venture (aka scheme) over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  Plus someone wrote a great headline, which we shamelessly stole for this blog post.  Here’s an excerpt, and a link to the full article:

Programs should prepare their students to publish wisely and the good ones do. Yet the best thing an M.F.A. program can do for its students is to help them write their first book without sinking into debt. Many of the best programs offer a free ride or close to it. Frey has targeted programs in which most students are paying their own way, garnering no teaching experience, and living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. (For example, this year’s M.F.A. tuition at Columbia is $48,519, and their Web site lists substantial additional fees for “students who opt for thesis advisement.”) That he has done so is no coincidence, though to be fair he might have found at least a few takers most anywhere.

Frey-like maneuvers date back beyond George Gissing’s satire of them in New Grub Street, which was published in 1891, long before the first M.F.A. program lifted its head. Generations of unsavory folks (often themselves writers or failed writers) have recognized there’s a buck to be made off the aspirations of others. Read the terms of Frey’s contract together with some of the ads in the back of writing magazines (or just search the phrase “book doctor”), and you may conclude that a young writer’s willingness to join Full Fathom Five isn’t about professional under-education but something else.

via A Fray Over Frey’s Play to Prey on M.F.A.’s – Arts & Academe – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with James Frey at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: