August 7, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Alice Lowe
My writing buddy, Jim, is the only person to whom I confess my current impasse. To others I’m taking stock, generating ideas, planning. Whatever I can say in lieu of dried up, empty-headed, in a funk. In lieu of the inadmissible: w______ b____. I shrink from the admission and what it might say about me—that I’m a quitter, lazy, bereft of creativity—just as I would be loath to reveal a sexually-transmitted disease. The most I’m prepared to say is that “I’m struggling a bit.”
Jim and I met in a memoir class eight years ago, both of us recently retired from business careers. We still meet every two weeks and are well acquainted with each other’s strengths and weaknesses. He flags my ample alliterations and excessive em-dashes. I circle his run-on sentences. We celebrated each other’s first published essay and every subsequent success. We’ve withstood times of plenitude and drought.
Me: I’m struggling a bit.
Jim: I’d suggest writing from prompts, but I know you hate it.
Me: I don’t hate it, just have difficulty getting started. I can’t generate anything on cue.
Jim: Try again—what can you lose?
Me: Mmm, maybe so.
Prompts are everywhere, I add, stirred by his challenge. I pick up a book from the end table. Sustainability: A Love Story, by Nicole Walker. I flip to a random page and read: “Everything grows more slowly in Flagstaff.”
We look at each other wide-eyed.
Jim: “Wow. That’s a good one.”
I agree, but it doesn’t help.
Me: I’m still struggling. Actually, I’m stuck.
Jim: Why don’t you write about it?
Me: Everyone writes about … writer’s block. There, I’ve said it.
Jim: And we always read them!
Me: What would I say?
Jim: How about “Everyone writes about writer’s block.”
Everyone writes about writer’s block. Every writer knows it firsthand, whatever they call it, whatever their experience. Carson McCullers was paralyzed by it. Samuel Coleridge resorted to opium. Toni Morrison rejects the term but knows the feeling. Hilary Mantel suggests getting away from your desk. John McPhee says to write your way out of it. Mind over matter. Write. Or take a break. Either way, it’s a phase. It will pass.
I wrote a craft piece several years ago, “How to Become a Writer After Sixty.” I advise: “Be patient but firm with yourself. When you’re not inspired or productive don’t call it writer’s block—bowels and sinuses get blocked, not writers.” But that was when I was flooded with ideas, when life stories queued up in my brain.
But surely I haven’t exhausted the experiences of a long and rich life, esoteric themes ripe for development. I’ve researched and written about baseball and Arctic exploration, maps, noodles, cookbooks, and obscure novelists. What else might I unearth?
I’m invigorated by beginnings, real or arbitrary—the start of the year, spring equinox, as soon as this (fill-in-the-blank) commitment is over—times of transition, of renewal, of fresh beginnings. This January began to work its magic as I made lists—to do, to read, to write. I looked at notes I’d jotted down but hadn’t followed up. Sentences, paragraphs and pages abandoned to slush files. I started with a few carry-overs; ideas began to bubble to the surface.
My creativity awakened, like a congealed sauce that needs to be stirred and heated to revive its essence.
Or like Flagstaff, where everything grows more slowly, and which, a tantalizing topic, I put at the top of the list.
Alice Lowe writes about life, literature, food and family in San Diego. Recent essays appear in Ascent, Bloom, Hobart, Stonecoast Review, Superstition Review, and Waccamaw Review. She has been cited in the Best American Essays notables and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Alice blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.
October 2, 2017 § 5 Comments
By Heidi Czerwiec
Nicole Walker is a writer whose first book of poetry This Noisy Egg was followed by a book of lyric nonfiction, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, and a co-edited collection Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction. It is because of this thoughtful genre-bending she embraces that I enjoy teaching her work in multi-genre introductory creative writing workshops, in essay-writing courses, and, most recently, in a hybrid forms workshop. In particular, I have great success with her short piece “Fish,” the opening essay in Quench, and a Brevity essay as well, which never fails to provoke heated discussions and compelling imitations.
“Fish” is a nonfiction piece that complicates students’ ideas of what an essay is and how it should behave. A triptych, each part is only ¾–1 page long. The first part resembles nature or environmental writing and describes, in a zoomed-in empathetic third-person point of view, a salmon fighting to climb a man-made fish ladder: “The fish jumped a ladder built of electricity and concrete. Swimming up the Columbia teachers her a lesson about progress.” The second section, written in first person (but with an awareness that shifts between a child’s and an adult’s perspective), is a vivid memory of deep-sea fishing with her father and his friends, and struggling to reel in a huge barracuda: “I am eleven years old and holding onto a fishing pole, trolling for big fish in the deep water off Florida’s coast. I must have been beautiful then.” The third part, written in second person, reads like food writing – in this case, how to prepare fish: “Cooking filets of fish is not complicated…. It’s the sauce that’s difficult.”
“Fish” represents three different kinds of nonfiction writing – nature documentary, memoir, and food writing – with which students are already familiar. But how do they work (or not work) together as a triptych of styles seemingly linked only by topic? Each section presents only a brief, image-based moment addressing some aspect of fish – only the recipe-like third section offers us much closure, and none gives that satisfying moral or meaning that students long for. Their reaction to “Fish” is complicated further by unexpected lyric elements: “This isn’t an essay; it’s a poem,” they complain. While each section has its distinct voice, images and words echo across the essay: the straining of the salmon upstream becomes the straining of the young girl and barracuda against each other, and returns as directions for making a sauce: “Strain through a chinois. Strain through cheese cloth. Strain one more time for good measure.” Words like “circling,” “hold,” and “flesh” recur, accruing meaning. And Walker breaks her prose into short paragraphs sometimes only a line long, which visually resembles poetry and affects the pacing of how we read her essay. How can all of these elements co-exist in the same piece of writing?
As all of you are well aware, the verb “essay” or “assay” means to attempt. Walker’s “Fish” makes explicit the many approaches we may take to our topics. What is interesting is the way she tries to do several at once – create three distinct styles and voices and points of view, and yet tie them together not only through topic, but more subtly through recurrent words and images. As a result, “Fish” offers much for discussion about the choices she’s made and the effects they have on readers, both in the individual sections and across the whole piece.
After discussing “Fish,” I like to lead students through a guided free-write imitation: I have them start by writing about a vivid memory involving a single-ingredient food item – an animal, a fruit or vegetable, a spice, etc. Then, I have them try to write a brief scene from the sensory perspective of that food item. Finally, they write directions for their favorite recipe for that item. For their assignment, they can develop these sections, but I encourage them to explore other ways of considering that food item (its history, its cultural associations, etc.), so long as they end up with at least a three-part essay. As they refine their piece, they should also experiment with creating distinct voices, styles, and points of view for each section, as well as finding ways to tie the sections together via language, imagery, or other elements. This piece often is one of the strongest my students produce, and encourages them to play with a number of writing techniques in a short piece.
reprinted with permission, previously published in Assay
Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, the forthcoming collection Conjoining, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she works with various literary organizations, including Motionpoems, ROAR: Literature and Revolution from Feminist People, and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.
November 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
An illustrated NonfictioNow round-up from Rebecca Fish Ewan:
“Stories are food!” Brian Doyle shouted right before we all broke for lunch. Stories are food. He said this throughout his keynote address with the urgency of a preacher in a revivalist tent. In fact, his message was not unlike a religious one.
“Nonfiction is everywhere!”
“Every part of your life is an essay!”
Can I get an Amen?
As he spoke, I thought back to the last NonfictioNow conference I attended and why. I had just gobbled up Reality Hunger by David Shields and had developed a huge crush on his brain, so I submitted to be a panelist at the conference just to hear him deliver the keynote. Not very spiritual of me. That was Melbourne, 2012.
Now the leaves shimmer golden in the brilliant light of Flagstaff, Arizona, and I can sense change in the air, specifically with regard to form. As I move from session to session, my own panel included, a clear thread begins to emerge, though it goes by varying names—visual memoir, blended genres, side-stepped boundaries, hybrid essays. Stories are food and while truth is still on the menu, the variety of dishes now expands beyond traditional bounds of language.
Amen to that.
Never one to feel at the center of anything, I love witnessing the erosion of borders—between poetry and prose, between word and image, sound and story itself. Story-telling is embracing a synesthetic sense of the world, something Shields hinted at three years ago, but that now feels deep in the DNA of nonfiction. Panels include: Music and Writing, Making (Radio) Waves, Performing the Essay, Of Visual Essayistics, Mix It Up, Adventures in Poetic Biography, CNF and the Hybrid Form, the Poessaytics of Form, and my own Mixed Media Memoir. “One art form can explain another,” said Harrison Candelaria Fletcher while using Cornell’s shadow boxes to illustrate his thoughts and experience with the hybrid essay. “Writing is a script that can only be heard in the ear,” Will Jennings said as he discussed his interests in the link between music and memory. “Food is a mode of storytelling,” said Samantha van Zweden of using the lyric essay to write on memory, food and mental illness.
Brenda Miller offered calming options in talking about her experiments with poetic forms applied to the essay. “I have always believed that rules and constraint can be liberating,” she explained as she presented her prose villanelle about two cats and pantoum on ectopic pregnancy and her college roommate Francisco. Another structured approach to genre bending comes through pairing. “The most interesting thing is the technique of juxtaposition,” said Michael Martone in the session on creative facting with Dave Madden, Tim Denevi and Maggie Nelson. Martone later illustrated the richness of juxtaposition in the keynote on keys he performed in duet fashion with Ander Monson. Juxtaposition is one way that a writer can apply what Madden called the “nonfictive imagination.” Nelson talked of “modes of assembly” as a way to reach into this species of imagination to find the story.
But what about truth? Is all this fuzziness a kind of magician’s slight of hand to enable the writer to lie? These questions circle back to Doyle’s story sermon where he implored us to use our gifts to “catch and share” the stories that are out in the world. “Witness is the greatest single thing you can do with your work,” he said. A witness is not a fabricator, but any witness perceives with his or her particular lens and recounts the story with his or her unique voice. I return as well to Kafka’s 63rd reflection on sin, suffering, hope, and the true way, where he reminds us that “our art is a way of being dazzled by truth.”
I was curious how the event affected a newcomer to the conference. My co-panelists, Amy Silverman and Deborah Sussman, both seasoned nonfictionalists, had never attended a NonfictioNow conference. “I was struck by how much experimenting is going on,” said Silverman, “I love seeing that visual art and poetry are making more appearances, even though my own work blends memoir with journalism. It was a nice time to get out of the writing cave and hear what others are working on.”
The collective wisdom and experience shared over these past three days has been astounding. The organizers, an army led by Robin Hemley, David Carlin and Nicole Walker, amassed a humbling assembly of authors. After reading through the speaker bios, I felt both honored and intimidated to be among such a group of writers. Nicole Walker senses the gladness of this entourage of talent that permeates the air in Flagstaff. “I thought I was doing this to bring people together for collaboration and conversation,” said Walker, “I didn’t know how much joy people would get from the conference and that makes me very happy.”
Amen to that.
Rebecca Fish Ewan teaches landscape architecture at Arizona State University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing. Author of A Land Between, her work has also appeared in Brevity, LA magazine, and Hip Mama. She just finished her hybrid memoir (free verse + cartoon) on a childhood friendship cut short by murder and is launching a mixed form zine, GRAPH(feeties): true stories of walking. More on her work and submission info at: www.rebeccafishewan.com
September 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
Sundog Lit has a road-thumping, tire-biting, asphalt-meltingly wonderful new issue — (Letters from) the Road — edited by Brevity contributor Jill Talbot. We especially love the digital work by Eric LeMay (full disclosure, he’s on the Brevity Board of Directors) and the video essay by William Hoffacker, as well as work by Pam Houston, Marcia Aldrich, Lee Martin, Nicole Walker, William Bradley, B.J. Hollars … oh, cripes almighty, it would probably just be best to list the entire table of contents. As for the theme, Here’s an excerpt from Jill’s marvelous intro, followed by a link to the issue itself:
A gas station in Beatty, Nevada in 1973. Twenty-two miles from here, off the U.S. 93, four cars with out-of-state plates laze in the parking lot of the Outlaw Motel. Who knows what’s really going on here? The blue sky looks so brilliant against the yellow sunflowers in a South Dakotan summer. A flock of blackbirds flies off a field somewhere near Columbus. And there on the side of the road, looking up and out at the surrounding emptiness, it wasn’t so difficult to imagine. The night train from Venice. Around the wide square driveway, down the hill and around the turnabout with the lit lantern beacon in the middle across the street from the red barn and the muddy yard. The road to Hana, the 68-mile highway that skimmed along beige cliffs, single-lane bridges. A road after a flash flood in San Angelo, Texas. The stacked stones of a roadside liquor sign in Ohio. We are half-way there. Speeding the curves of a road braced by the blue light of snow…. It is staggering to be here.
December 3, 2013 § 5 Comments
I’m delighted to announce the next NonfictioNOW Conference will be held in October of 2015 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s official! Stay tuned in the months to come for requests for panel proposals and other important information.
The precise dates have yet to be set, but planning has commenced.
July 15, 2013 § Leave a comment
By Nicole Walker
There are two ways to produce salt—either drag some seawater into a shallow, well-lined pond and let the sun evaporate the water away or mine it from sedimentary deposits. The first is obviously the easiest. Find a hose. Line a shallow pond. Wait for the sun to shine. The second requires hammers and pickaxes and maybe even construction hats. Sadly (or possibly happily. Binaries keep forcing me to pick a side), writing a book is more the latter than the former. First, you have to find a hat. Second, you have to flail bodily against your computer until something like a granule of salt comes out. One grain of sand per seventy-five swings of the axe. Sometimes, I think this book-as-pasta is going to end up without any flavoring at all.
I started Quench Your Thirst with Salt, before I knew it was going to be Quench, with a poem called “Fish“—a 500 word spin on “fish” that forgot to behave like a poem. It made metaphor into scene. It lost its line breaks. It explained associative connections (or at least a couple of them). Perhaps most nonfictiony: it laid the groundwork for the next word spin to come. A poem is a poem by the fact of its ending. This thing didn’t quite end. Rather, it began. The last line of “Fish“ is “Do not let the fish get cold.” I sent this 500 word spin to Brevity. The act of submitting the word spin there meant a book had begun. If you’re going to end a piece of writing on an imperative, you had better follow up. This is a recipe for one dish. You’re going to need to make something to complement the entrée. It wasn’t as easy as draining ocean water into a small pool but, I realized, if I took the axe and chopped off chunk by chunk, I could, eventually, end up with enough granules to make a salty book.
The book is very chunky—especially at first. Everything is a section. A section of narrative about J.R. Ewing and Dallas, a bit of research about the health effects of red wine. Sentences are chunky. Metaphors, obviously, run wild. The method uses poetry’s method of moving by association but the essay’s promise is, “this will all come together in the end.” How do you make sense of a life? How do make sense of a place? Only one crash of the hammer at a time. Then, when you have enough salt, maybe it’s time to start cooking. Sprinkling a little salt from the first chapter into explaining why you fried the chicken in chapter eight. Salting the water in chunk seven of chapter three means that the pasta is finally al dente. Crushing salt into garlic in chapter two, section four means that this isn’t just metaphor anymore. That the manner in which you procured the salt and the sedimentary place from which you pulled it from the ground and the way you crushed the salt and the method into your hair and the way you look now, all wild-haired and sweaty, means that the metaphor told the story and the story told the metaphor and your dad’s drinking and your fish and your mother’s protecting you from snowball-throwing boys and the time you swam in Lake Mary and the time that you gave birth to your daughter and how your dad and your boyfriend taught you how to drive and how your dad pulled oil out of shale rock before they called it fracking and when the boy took you home before they called it fucking and the drought in the desert and the barracuda off the coast of Florida and the wolf you think you saw while you were looking for your familiar become not just metaphors and not just stories and not just seasoning but instead become the way you make sense of a life. And, by extension, the way you make a book.
Nicole Walker is the author of Quench Your Thirst with Salt and This Noisy Egg. She co-edited with Margot Singer, Bending Genre—Toward a Theory of Creative Nonfiction and with Rebecca Campbell, 7 Artists, 7 Rings—An Artist’s Game of Telephone.