Tapped Out: Memoir Beyond Trauma

October 8, 2015 § 7 Comments

"Tell the reader about your problems..."

“Tell the reader about your problems…”

At Kirkus Reviews, Debra Monroe mourns the passing of what used to be called “autobiography”:

I miss the big genre I first fell in love with.

Fifteen years ago, I read The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper, A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl, The Color of Water by James McBride, Mountain City by Gregory Martin, and that pioneering exemplar first published in 1977 as “autobiography” because no one called them memoirs yet, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. I apologize if I’ve failed to mention your favorite memoir that predates the recovery memoir. These are mine. Filled with dramatic scenes and nearly aphoristic insight about the individual’s relation to history, culture, and community, they delivered exciting new reasons to read.

Yet within a decade, the ordinary person’s memoir—which in the 1990s appeared as a new rendition of a genre once reserved for celebrities and statesmen—became the recovery memoir.

Monroe doesn’t decry the memoirs of addiction, of abuse, of trauma–but she questions why memoir has become so inextricably linked with traumatic experience.

Somewhere in the journey from famous-person’s-diary to anyone-can-memoir, we’ve lost sight of the idea that unique experience–or universal experience well-told–can be interesting enough. That our genre isn’t Queen For A Day. That it’s OK to be a wordsmith, a world-quantifier, an insight-generator, rather than primarily a sufferer.

Monroe mentions that “most afflictions have been covered now,” and she’s right. How many more journeys do we need through addiction, through childhood sexual abuse, through sex work?

Yet this is not to say OFF LIMITS to certain topics, just because they’ve “been done,” often more than once before. Rather, if we are writing our trauma, we must look for what we have to say that’s new. The “so what” factor is stronger than it used to be for the recovery memoir. The craft needed to sell the story is at a higher level. The reader’s need is for the author’s unique perspective, the author’s ability to generate insight in partnership with the reader.

As Monroe argues, “While the best memoirs I know depict hardship, hardship is a station or two on a longer trek.”

Read the whole thing at Kirkus Reviews.

David Foster Wallace’s CNF Syllabus

September 4, 2015 § 2 Comments

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

Also a noted bandana-wearer.

Ah, David Foster Wallace. The teacher we either wish desperately we had or are heartily thankful we didn’t. And a kickass syllabus writer, too.  For instance:

…the adjective creative signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work. This creative goal, broadly stated, may be to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these. Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel.

Check out the whole thing–and wonder what grade you might have gotten on the scale of “Mind-blowingly good” to “Downright bad”–over at Salon.

The Architecture of Nonfiction

September 2, 2015 § 3 Comments

Sometimes it does feel like bricklaying.

Sometimes it does feel like bricklaying.

When journalists become narrative-non-fiction writers, when essayists delve into memoir, the transition can be a challenge. How do we move from short and punchy (or mid-length and devastating) to a book-length work that holds the reader’s attention and leaves them satisfied?

At Nieman Storyboard, Bloomsbury Press Publisher and Editorial Director Peter Ginna discusses some key tools and techniques for successful book-length creative nonfiction. He points out why thematic and episodic structures often fail, how to figure out how much background to include (hint: “If you find yourself writing what the British call a “potted history” of World War II, your protagonist’s adolescence, or the development of the personal computer, there’s a good chance you are burdening the story with an excess of background”), and why sourcing matters.

As memoirists and essayists, we’ve heard this before, but Ginna’s phrasing bears repeating:

The most critical difference between a book and a magazine or newspaper article is that the publisher has to convince someone to part with 25 dollars or more for this story and this story alone, and perhaps more important, to invest several hours of his or her life in reading it. That’s a pretty high threshold. To get across it, you need a topic that is more than merely interesting and a narrative that’s more than well-wrought. You need a story that has a significance beyond itself, and you need to convey that significance to the reader.

[Ginna’s emphasis, and we emphatically concur.]

Check out the whole article at Nieman Storyboard.

Girlie Stuff

October 6, 2014 § 2 Comments

Will Brevity's Social Media Editor give the Editor-in-Chief a literary heart attack?

Will Brevity’s Social Media Editor give the Editor-in-Chief a literary heart attack with a sparkly gif?

This year’s National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction, released last week, included 10 nominees. One was a woman. One was a person of color. Blah blah blah demographics blah blah nonrepresentational–we know all that. And it still sucks. But is any of this inherent in the books themselves? Anne Boyd Rioux writes at The Millions:

Are fewer women writing nonfiction, you might ask. I suppose it depends on what you call “nonfiction.” According to the last few years’ NBA juries, it is mostly history (preferably about war or early America); biography (preferably about men, especially presidents); or reportage (preferably about war, the economy, or non-Western countries).

Are the subjects chosen by women writers seen as less worthy, less weighty? Or is it something in the approach?

Women’s attraction to memoirs and essays, many of which focus on the issues unique to women’s lives, may in fact have much to do with their low profile…in recent years, the major awards have not reflected much of an interest in works that defy category—whether it be in their play between fiction and nonfiction or simply in their interest in combining elements of subgenres within nonfiction…

Maybe we’re back to the old trope that a man writing about his life is a universal coming-of-age story and a woman writing about hers is a women’s book? When I searched “coming of age story bildungsroman” I got 20 books in the clever picture scroll at the top of the results. At first I was excited–Jane Eyre! Bastard Out of Carolina! Maybe I was wrong! Then I counted. Six books by women. Sure, it’s a Google search, not a definitive literary list–but it represents what’s being talked about on the Internet. What a larger portion of the population believes define the category. (Don’t search “great nonfiction,” it’ll just depress you.)

In Is There No Gender Equity in Nonfiction, Ms. Rioux takes a look at the NBA Longlist, and suggests twelve books by women that should be on the awards radar. There’s some cute little books there, ladies: Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction An Unnatural Historyyou know, girlie stuff.

Read Anne Boyd Rioux’s article at The Millions.

________________________________________

Allison K Williams is the Social Media Editor at Brevity.

 

The Opposite of Brevity

October 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

OliverTwist_6957Sometimes, a reader just wants…more. And here, well, we’re brief. Very brief. The soul of wit, as it were. But if you’re settling in for a morning’s reading–and you’ve already savored Brevity‘s Fall issue–skip the clickbait and listicles (the food and the book have to come out even, right?) and head over to Longform.

Longform rounds up (of course) long form essays, journalism, podcasts and a weekly fiction piece.

Their curated article sets are a great way to explore a subject across time–The Longform Guide to Bank Heists included pieces on prolific, famous, and infamous bank robbers, including the true story behind Dog Day Afternoon. The juxtapositions of subject matter and style are intriguing–Sarah Miller’s To Cook or Not To Cook from the September issue of Cafe is side by side with a piece on corrupt congressman James Traficant, from The New Republic, July 2000.

It’s a great place to spend some time.

 

 

Under the Gum Tree

April 9, 2013 § 1 Comment

CaptureA call for submissions:

Under the Gum Tree strives for authentic connections through vulnerable, personal storytelling. We exclusively publish creative nonfiction and especially seek pieces that incorporate film, food, or music, as well as other stuff our real lives are made of. We also especially seek flash nonfiction.

We publish quarterly in both digital and print, and accept submissions year-round. Submit by 5/24/13 to be considered for the Summer 2013 issue, by 8/23/13 to be considered for the Fall 2013 issue, and by 11/22/13 to be considered for the Winter 2014 issue.

For more information and submission guidelines visit underthegumtree.com.

 

 

The Call of Nonfiction

November 18, 2012 § 3 Comments

We are receiving an increasing number of e-mails asking us to solicit nonfiction submissions from readers of this blog, so we wonder, do readers of this blog want us to post these calls for submissions?  You can vote here, and then jump down to see the call from Soundings Review:

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Soundings Review, the journal of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, invites you to submit your work.  Our deadline approaches, and we are low on nonfiction submissions, a trend we hope you, the nonfiction writer in search of a home for your well-crafted essay, can help us reverse.

Our submission guidelines can be found here: http://www.nila.edu/soundings/submissions/ We look forward to reading your work.”

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