aixelsyD (…and that looks fine to me)

March 13, 2018 § 16 Comments

A guest post from Ryder Ziebarth:

In third grade, we practiced our reading aloud in homeroom each afternoon. If we didn’t falter, Mrs. Karrick sent us to Assembly Hall for the last half hour of the day, where a group of better readers gathered with the head of the lower school, Mrs. Drysdale, to practice.

I remember when I was sent to Assembly Hall. I felt so smart, walking down the green linoleum hallway, through the swinging doors of the great Hall reserved for morning meeting, the pledge of allegiance, and school plays. I chose a seat in the semi-circle of gray plastic chairs closest to Mrs. Drysdale.

My turn came to read a passage. I stood with the book splayed open in my hands and stared at the sentences before me. The words were longer than the ones I read with Mrs. Karrick and they contained too many letters. The words in this book looked like a foreign language to me; so many vowels! My eyes looked down at my Buster Browns.

“Begin, please,” said Mrs. Drysdale. The big word danced.

“The genie in the bottle said…ab…ba, aba…ab…ra, ca, cad…cada…”

“Abracadabra,” Mrs. Drysdale said. “Next?”

Back to homeroom I went, scuffing my shoes, promising myself I’d try harder next time. The following week, I read flawlessly for Mrs. Karrick, but in Assembly Hall I stumbled over the word physical for Mrs. Drysdale. Where was the “F” in that word? The commute went on for another week, until finally I wasn’t asked back again. I felt stupid, and relieved. Unfortunately, feeling stupid was the feeling that lasted.

I discovered I had dyslexia—a language-based learning disability characterized by trouble spelling, reading, decoding and pronouncing words— at age forty, when my own daughter was being tested for Attention Deficit Disorder. I picked up a pamphlet on the table in the psychologist’s office, waiting for her appointment to end. Take this test, it read.

Do you have trouble sounding out words?

I just skip over them when I read to myself, never out loud (shades of Assembly Hall).

Difficulty spelling?

I hire freelance editors for everything I write.

Do you have difficulty memorizing?

F is for French…and chemistry.

An inability to spot mistakes when proofreading?

See “hiring freelancers” above.

Trouble knowing left from right?

There’s a difference?

Was it hard for you to learn to tie your shoes as a child?

I was eight.

Telling time?

I was nine.

Teachers told my parents I was smart, but lazy; some said I was stupid and lazy. I loved to read but read slowly, skipping the words I didn’t recognize. I tested terribly. I couldn’t get in to the college of my dreams, but when I finally got to a college, I learned to compensate for my impairment by finding classmates looking for extra cash to either proof and type my papers, or tutor me in math. I always wore a pinkie ring on my right hand.

When I worked in New York, I paid secretaries to correct and type my reports because I couldn’t figure out the word processor in my own office no matter how many tutorials the company sent me to. I simply couldn’t remember the instructions.

My dyslexia hasn’t changed, but I learned to recognize it. I continue to thank the computer Gods for spellcheck and write checks to editors.

Recently, I posted an ad on Facebook for a writer’s workshop I held in my home, and was publicly called out for typos, none of which I saw after what I considered a careful proofread. The commenter said she’d never attend a writer’s workshop when the writer couldn’t spell. I thanked her for locating the mistakes, but my eight-year-old self went slinking back down the hall to Mrs. Karrick’s homeroom, as the Assembly Hall doors slammed shut behind me.

Although I tell myself I graduated college cum laude, plus two graduate-level programs despite my handicap, it’s still hard not to berate myself.

I will always need an editor. A kind soul who won’t make me feel stupid or lazy—just polished after my drafts are proofed. For many years I worried I was the only one—that everyone else had this secret power I lacked. But at the NonfictioNow conference in Iceland this past spring, author and keynote speaker Karl Ove Knausgård revealed he too, has never once in his entire career worked without an editor by his side.

I was in the right room at last.


Ryder S. Ziebarth is the founder of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series (Creating Memoir From Memoir workshop upcoming June 10). Her work has appeared in N Magazine, The New York Times, Punctuate, The Brevity Blog, Tiferet, Assay, Proximity and Past Ten. She serves as TRUE columnist for Proximity and as a committee member for the Nantucket Book Festival.

The Sagas of NonfictioNow 2017

June 6, 2017 § 4 Comments

by Rebecca Fish Ewan

nfn2017 rfishewan 0When I found out I’d be going to NonfictioNow 2017 in Reykjavik, I read The Sagas of Icelanders. How better to get to know a country than through its most treasured books? The Sagas feel like the ground from which all Icelandic literature grows. I loved seeing the pre-Christian landscape when magic still dwelled in the landscape itself. I loved how warriors would pause in battle to riff out a few lines of poetry. I loved the sentences unfettered by flowery words (like flowery). Yet, as when I read Kerouac’s On the Road, both times, I wondered why the women rarely spoke or did anything interesting.

I read the Sagas to introduce me to Iceland, but they also primed me for the conference. Not for having quiet Sagaian women. Quite the contrary, the conference had strong representation from women writers, thank goodness since women’s voices need to be heard. The Sagas tease at the edges of truth, or more precisely, reveal reality as a complex mix of magic, poetry, struggle, body and imagination. I found these same qualities, minus any head-splitting with battleaxes,  investigated in the panel sessions and readings at the conference.

nfn2017 rfishewan 1I feel more than ever that nonfiction is becoming alive. Facts used to feel like stone, like the things in life that never breathe, but the deeper I dig into what it means to tell the truth, the more I see that stories sing with facts. The conference also made it clear that the people writing nonfiction today are explorers travelling the far reaches of what can be done on the page.

This is my third NonfictioNow conference, so I can sense an evolution and notice a continued blurring of boundaries and breaking down of walls. The panels and readings explored hybridity of form and genre, considered the body in and as story, revealed a diversity of voices and ways to tell true stories. They considered the physics of time.

I’m glad the NonfictioNow team brought the conference to Iceland. This is the first time it’s been held in a country whose mother tongue isn’t English. While all the panels and readings were in English, I had a chance to hear Icelandic writers read translations of their work. My favorite line of the conference came from Gerður Kristný—“I lick away extinguished stars” —during her reading from her true crime poetry, a story of murder narrated by the Devil. Sadly, the book is not available in English. And even if it were, it might not be sold in the United States (America first and all that). I don’t have much hope of ever mastering the Icelandic language enough to read Kristný or any of the other fine Icelandic authors, but I hope more translations are published in English. And that these books find their way to the States, perhaps hidden inside containers of Skyr.

nfn2017 rfishewan 2At the same reading, held in a small chapel-like room designed by Alvar Aalto, American writer Ariel Gore read from her upcoming book, We Were Witches, a magically real memoir-based novel. The passage she read offered a new direction for the genre that my daughter used to call nonfiction fiction. True-feeling stories that create a world where Adrienne Rich can be a bird chirping out advice from a tree. I want to live in that world of poet birds, a place where I’m certain magic still dwells in the landscape itself.

I attended or participated in sessions that addressed memoir, tackling issues of the dual perspective (pay attention to pace and question linearity), dark matter (draw cartoons), the segmented narrative (say yes to it), movement (leave home), and debt (die). The panel on time in memoir, chaired by Barrie Jean Borich, revealed what physicists have been saying for decades: time is like taffy, all churned up and delicious. Paul Lisicky spoke of queering time, the way the structure of his memoir demanded to be incremental, nonlinear, as his life had been lived.

DSC00133The last panel session of the conference fittingly focused on movement. All the panelist in this session have lived uprooted lives and discussed the effect their movement across the globe has had on their writing. Carmella de los Angeles Guiol began her talk with a quote from an essay on plants, on the benefits of having a perennial root system. Movement can generate writing though sometimes, as she noted, “I need to know where my socks are.” Glen Retief saw a benefit to memoir in having a “scrambled GPS.” He noted how it grants “the gift of perspective,” as well as stimulates linguistic and formal innovations. “The fragmentation of moving around a lot” can bring fragmentation to the memoir form.

A lasting takeaway for me was advice I heard during the Q and A for the session on Writing While Working Class, chaired by Sailor Holladay. To help other writers, especially those who struggle most to get their work published, Denise Benavides suggested you “don’t be a fucking gatekeeper.”

Rebecca Fish Ewan is a poet/cartoonist who makes and publishes Tiny Joys & GRAPH(feeties) zines through her own imprint, Plankton Press. Her work has also been published in Brevity, Landscape Architecture and Hip Mama, Survivor Zine and in her nonfiction book, A Land Between. She teaches at Arizona State University. Find her on Twitter/Instagram: @rfishewan. Rebecca also provided the illustrations for this blog post.

The Non Now, Aussie Style

November 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

A guest post from Barrie Jean Borich:

NonfictioNOW 2012, the Melbourne Edition, ended yesterday, and as I reflect back over the last few days, from my hotel room with its bird’s eye view of the northwest side of this mod glass city, I find that can’t separate form from content.

By form I mean the multi-racial, multi-national, graffitied central city of Melbourne, as well as the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology campus where where the conference took place this year.  RMIT is a design and technology university, situated (in-part) in the center of Melbourne. The nonfiction program that hosted us, the nonFictionLab, of the Nonfiction Research Group at RMIT, is located, interestingly (to anyone who has been a part of conversations regarding where to put creative writing in the university) in the School of Media and Communication, which aligns writing with design, digital media, film and television, media studies, cultural studies and photography.

The place and space detail of this year’s conference matters because such is part of the purpose of this gathering I’ve long affectionately referred to as NonNow. How might we relocate nonfictional artistic form, on and beyond the page? At this moment where digital communication has changed how many of us think, work and exist, and where the technology of the book itself, not to mention the contemporary city, shifts daily, where we hold these discussions may be a marker of what we’re talking about.

NonfictioNOW has always used such language as “myriad of forms,” a descriptor that is the reason I’ve been to every single one of these gatherings since the inception. But what is form if not a kind of spatial experience? I spent much of the three days of this year’s conference, as always when suspended in conference-time, chatting with friends and colleagues, some of whom I  see only in the country of conferences, listening to now familiar discussions (though perhaps here, at RMIT at least, framed with even greater attention to cross-disciplinarity) about genre boundaries, the unknowability of reality, and the ways to make or unmake our own places and bodies on the page. What differed this time was seeing my life’s work, and that of nearly everyone in those rooms, from the liberating angle of the other side of my known world.

The atmosphere of central Melbourne is made of intense immigration, particularly from Asia, as well as innovative and environmentally informed architectural design. A note back to my Minneapolis architect friend Paul Mellblom confirms what seems true walking around this city. “Melbourne is quite the architectural happening place,” Paul tells me. “Very experimental and thoughtful design [such as] double skins are much in vogue, due to building codes that mandate energy and especially water efficiency.”

At dinner last night at a glass-swathed eatery serving a mix of Asian cuisines, hidden within one of the Melbourne City Centre’s many interior-exterior spaces, my spouse Linnea and I agreed that Melbourne feels pleasingly geometric, like living within a Mondrian painting. Part of this feeling comes from the hours I spent on the RMIT campus, the highly designed building renovations of Storey Hall, visually stunning, with great attention paid to shape and lighting, from the polished asymmetry of the flooring to the ruffles and curves of the ceiling and overhangs, embedded shapes one local told me were meant to represent the Suffragettes who used a previous iteration of this space as their meeting hall.  Every journey to the restroom was a wandering into distinctly green-lit corridors, illuminating passageways as if into labyrinth of essayistic revelation.

Others have, and will, report some of the finer details and critiques of what conferees discussed at this years’ panels, and my own post-conference discussion questions are the same any observant participant might ask.  Why is the city of Melbourne so much more racially diverse than the panel audience, and why do so many more women then men come to NonNow?  Are there more queer writers who might come to this conference, but don’t, and if so, why not? And consider the question a Koori shopkeeper at the Vic Market asked Linnea and me after showing us her cousin’s memoir—will there be Aboriginal writers at your conference? Which leaves me curious to hear the backstory to explain why every conference keynote began with homage to Aboriginal people (which I assume is formal reconciliation statement of some sort) when Aboriginal writers did not appear in the program. I ask these questions fully admitting I come here knowing little about how these issues play in Australia overall, nor what it took to pull off this event at RMIT, but also hoping the diversity panel I was a part of is the start of a discussion that grows and becomes much more complex in the NonNow’s to come.

The questions I come away with for my own work are best described as familiar but newly nuanced.  Do time-sensitive and polemical nonfictions fit fast-acting internet forums better than others, and will we continue to require the printed page?  Are the characters we make of our own lives revelations of (in Cheryl Strayed’s words) the second heart we must rip from our chests, or (in Xu Xi’s words) “face-blankets,” second skins not unlike those of Melbourne architecture, designed to both express and protect? How do we forestall synthesis in order to sensorially experience new places before committing spatial description to the page? Is it fair to insist that the novel is dead and the fact irrelevant when conversing with writers from countries where writing narrative realism has landed them in prison?

The Americans will carry these questions back over twenty-something hours of travel, and rephrase them in our work and in our classrooms. And while I am still sad over the loss of this year’s biannual conference to a generation of  Midwestern American creative writing grad students, not to mention many teachers and writers from all over the USA who did not have access to either time or institutional resources to travel all the way to Australia, I wrap up this year’s meeting deeply grateful to DePaul University in Chicago for supporting the conference portion of my trip this year. Having taken on this long journey, despite reservations about the relocation, I must admit I’m transformed by the experience of internationally reframing of our conversation. Thoughtfully made spaces are themselves the re-creators of form, and when these spaces remove writers from familiar ground, reground us in a new contextual frames, the conversation can’t help but burst its previous container.

The purpose of conferences are to burst our containers, reframe our works, re-landscape our understanding, move us from the parochial and static into what may well be called the Non Now. One of my last conference conversations this year was with the essayist Patrick Madden, a writer I met first in the middle of the night a few NonNows ago, at the printer in the lobby of the conference hotel in Iowa City, both of us printing out our newly revised conference papers the night before our panels. This time we finished our conference saying “Will I see you at AWP in Boston this year? Oh right, we’re on a panel together.” And then we laughed about the oddity of this country we conferees populate, the people we see again and again, in rooms all over the world yet never in the Not-Non-Now of our actual lives. The new work will rise from the intersection of these spaces.

Barrie Jean Borich is the author of Body Geographic forthcoming in the University of Nebraska Press American Lives Series, and My Lesbian Husband, winner of the Stonewall Book Award. She was the first nonfiction editor of Water~Stone Review and recently joined the creative writing faculty at DePaul University. Barrie splits her time between Chicago and Minneapolis.

Why Are Sharks Mean? (On Writing the Kid-Mind)

December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

From guest blogger David Wanczyk, essayist and Ohio University Director of Special Programs:

“Why are sharks mean?” was the question that propelled “The Way Grown-Ups Talk: Adult Narrators, Childhood Stories,” a panel presentation at The NonfictioNow Conference early last month.  The question had been originally asked by the writer Ryan Van Meter’s young nephew, and Van Meter used it to remind us that children aren’t simple (or simple-minded).  Kids, he insisted, are brilliant in an idiosyncratic, unexpected way.  And sharks, he insisted, are, by most measures, mean!

This panel—which also included Michele Morano, Sarah Dohrmann, Elmar Lueth, and John T. Price—brought to mind discussions I’d been having with my own students in our class, “Writing the Family.”  Together, we were reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Sonja Livingston’s Ghostbread, and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, memoirs which, to differing degrees, seek to emulate the thought-processes of children.

Bechdel repeatedly contrasts her adult-voice and her childhood voice to show us how she slowly came to the knowledge of her father’s and her own homosexuality.  Livingston uses short sentences and short chapters to replicate the feeling of dislocation she had during a childhood in which she moved constantly.  But it’s McCourt who seemed most instructive to my students.

In his ubiquitous (but still excellent) tale of growing up poor on both sides of the Atlantic, he rarely if ever strays from the voice of the growing Frankie.  And while Thomas Larson has rightly suggested that “Angela’s Ashes is a triumph of artifice [. . .] that holds back the willfulness and complexity of the adult’s voice,” it’s still useful for emerging writers to look at the specific techniques McCourt uses to construct that child’s voice.

I will list a few of his techniques below with examples from McCourt in the hope that others will add examples from other texts.  Let’s be precise when we talk about the various ways writers recreate the brilliant idiosyncracies of the childhood mind.  And let’s not forget the meanness of sharks.

How the kid-mind gets written :

1.   Kids speak in mostly basic words, but use language they’ve learned from stories and from adults.  The contrast can be hilariously apparent.

“We can’t have tea because the milk is sour in the icebox where the ice is melted again and everyone knows you can’t drink tea without milk unless your father gives it to you out of his mug while he’s telling you about Cuchulain.”

2.   Kids repeat and ramble, especially when overwhelmed.  To emulate this, writers use anaphora (repeated words at the beginning of sentences) and polysyndeton (repeated conjunctions where they’re not necessarily needed).  I think this kind of repetition is often used as a shortcut.  The syntax blasts us with the idea: I was traumatized and can only relate that trauma in breathless bursts.  But that’s a different post.

“My face was wet from his tears and his spit and his snot and I was hungry and I didn’t know what to say when he cried all over my head.”

3.   Kids often misunderstand figures of speech and think very literally.

“[She said] Angela’s mother was spotless, so clean you could eat her dinner of her floor.  I wonder why you’d want to eat your dinner off the floor when you had a table and chair.”

4.   Kids over-generalize in amusing ways.  Here, Frankie McCourt believes that his injured Uncle’s strange behavior represents a universal truth.

“People who were dropped on their heads always worry someone will steal their stout.”

5.   Kids are rarely sentimental.  McCourt often has his childhood self relate the saddest events in the most matter-of-fact ways.  [note numbers 2 and 4 at play in this example as well].

“They put Oliver in a white box that came with us in the carriage and we took him to the graveyard.  They put the white box into a hole in the ground and covered it with earth.  My mother and Aunt Aggie cried, Grandma looked angry, Dad, Uncle Pa Keating, and Uncle Pat Sheehan looked sad but did not cry and I thought that if you’re a man you can cry only when you have the black stuff that is called the pint”

This is just a start.  Some of these may be obvious.  But my attempt this semester was to move beyond the comment, “He sounds like a kid here” and ask what—in the diction, syntax, and rhetoric—created that response.  To isolate and then emulate.

Philip Lopate, Come on Down!

October 18, 2010 § 3 Comments

The fine and clearly mischievous folks organizing NonfictionWOW: An Audience Participation Game Show, part of [NONFICTIONOW] THE BEDELL NONFICTION CONFERENCE need your help.  Answer a few questions for them, alright already?

Hello fellow nonfictioneers and other writerly friends. We’re gathering data for an upcoming event and we need your brief, off-the-top-of-your-head responses to the following short survey. There are just ten questions and the entire survey should take 2-3 minutes. You answers will be confidential and you don’t need to give us any personal information.

What do you say? Click on the link below to start:


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