A Review of Phillip Lopate’s A Mother’s Tale

April 13, 2017 § 1 Comment

zz lopate00_By Debbie Hagan

In the fall of 2005, my thirteen-year-old son tried to hang himself by using a leather belt that held up the pants of his Easter suit. By some miracle, the belt ripped in two, throwing my son to the floor, leaving him breathless but alive.

Since then, I’ve come to see death and life separated by a thin, quivering line. One minute you’re standing at the stove, cooking spaghetti for your family, picturing them laughing and talking around mouthfuls of Italian bread. The next, you’re racing to the emergency room, angry with yourself for minimizing your son’s depression.

I’ve learned as well that mother-son relationships are complicated. What’s more, wherever there’s love, there’s bound to be some pain too.

In part, this is what Phillip Lopate addresses in his slim new book A Mother’s Tale.   He possesses a deep love and respect for his mother, Fran Lopate. But she’s a hard woman to love—jealous, narcissistic, and needy.

In 1984, Lopate conducted a series of taped interviews with her, which became sort of a stage for his mother on which she tells her life story of being orphaned at age eleven, raised by sisters who didn’t want her, trapped in a loveless marriage, and then bound to a life of domestic drudgery. All this prevented her from pursuing what she perceived as her true calling: the theater. (At age fifty, though, she launched a somewhat successful acting and singing career, and might be remembered from the iconic Alka Selzter commercial, “Mama Mia, That’s a Spicy Meatball!”)

After the interviews, Lopate put the tapes away and didn’t play them for thirty years.

On the tape, Fran Lopate tells us, “I had a modicum of talent. I wanted to do something more with my life…. It seems that when I was younger, every time I tried something I was ridiculed. I was put down. Nothing I did was ever good enough.”

After hearing this, Lopate says, “…she had been frustrated at every turn: thwarted, thwarted, thwarted. Well, she certainly was thwarted, so why do I feel like mocking this assertion? I guess because it doesn’t take into account that it was she who dropped out of high school, she who chose to obey her sister, she who opted to marry my father, and not pursue her dream, etc., etc.”

A master of voice, Lopate plays two key parts in this book. He’s the in-the-moment, younger interviewer, who’s debating with his mother, challenging her “truth.” Interceding is the older Lopate, who’s less judgmental and more reflective.

The climax occurs when the younger Lopate and his mother argue about his suicide attempt. “Any time a mother sees a son in a state like that, unless she’s crazy, is going to feel guilty,” says the mother. “And I felt guilty. There’s nothing I could do to help you.”

In the next breath, however, she scolds him for not calling sooner, not letting her know until the next day that he was in the hospital.

“Well, I was in a coma—“

Lopate doesn’t reveal much more about this. Instead we hear the mother blame him for being distant—not reaching out, not calling regularly, not sharing his problems.

“I don’t understand how I could have come to you with my problems when you always had seemed so troubled to me,” replies Lopate on the tape. “Even when I was young, you had come to me with your problems….”

In fact, the mother confided in him, as if he were one of her girlfriends, about her various affairs, abortions, and immense disdain of his father.

Obviously Fran Lopate was not the perfect mother, but then again, who is? Children often come (especially during her time) when they’re young, naïve, and selfishly craving freedom and adventure.

“Listening to these tapes impressed upon me how often even an intelligent person can fail to observe the truth about herself,” says Lopate, who after three decades returns to the tapes less reactionary, softer, and more forgiving. This combination of voices and perspectives provides a more resonant truth about family dynamics and more importantly the tenuous and curiously malleable nature of love.

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Debbie Hagan is the mother of two practically grown sons who recall being forced into wearing tortuous bow ties and suits for every holiday. In addition to writing and editing book reviews for Brevity, she writes for Hyperallergic and her essays have been published in Pleiades, Superstition Review, Don’t Take Pictures, Brain, Child, Boston Globe Magazine, Dime Story, and elsewhere. She is also a visiting lecturer at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

New Ohio Review Seeks Lopatian Essays for Annual Contest, While Wondering What That Means . . .

March 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

mr lopate

Sir Lopate

A guest post from New Ohio Review editor David Wanczyk:

Last year, I wrote a post for Brevity about what I seek in Creative Nonfiction as the editor of New Ohio Review. It was 605 words, but it could have been three: Intensity, Ambivalence, Nostalgia.

Essentially, is there a conflict in the essay/memoir? Is there hard thinking and debate with oneself? And are there detail-rich descriptions that enliven a scene (potentially from 1986)?

I thought I’d been somewhat clever, laying out a writing schema that was not quite as general as a daily horoscope or as specific as an Ikea manual.

But it turns out that these three key concepts were only the product of cleverness inasmuch as they were basically cribbed from Phillip Lopate, one of my favorite writers, and New Ohio Review‘s 2017 Nonfiction Contest judge.

On intensity/conflict, he writes, “I was always waiting for life to become tragic, so that I would merely have to record it to become a powerful, universal writer,” and in that recognition of a desire for dramatic struggle, which he plays as partially naive, he reveals that it isn’t necessarily conflict that makes a good piece of nonfiction.

On ambivalence, he writes, “Personal essayists converse with the reader because they are already having dialogues and disputes with themselves,” and there he teaches me that self-debate helps us communicate; but at the same time, Lopate writes with absolute directness, refusing to dwell in any muddle. He’s not speaking from a place of ambivalence for the sake of it; the thing he’s chewing on is what’s important, not necessarily the mode of chewing.

On nostalgia, he writes, “One has to guard against the tendency to think of one’s youth as a time when the conversations were brighter, the friends truer, and the movies better.” With this, he would seem to pooh-pooh my suggestion that essayists should infuse their work with a sense of wonder about the past, and yet he consistently writes, in a lovely way, as though he were a documentary filmmaker of his own memory, even admitting that he occasionally felt like a cameraman when he was young: “I wanted life to have the economy and double meaning of art,” he admits. “But more often I simply felt torn by a harsh, banal pain that had no cinematic equivalent.”

Lopate’s work—searching, funny, and sometimes uncomfortable—stays in that space between artistry and banality, and because of that, we feel like we’re with a friend on his smartest day, a friend who, like us, doesn’t quite fit in.

“I believe in the aesthetically impure as an accurate reflection of reality,” he wrote in his book Getting Personal, and, as I look back at Lopate’s work I’m happy to go along with that idea, too. For this year.

Intensity, Ambivalence, and Nostalgia? Eh, maybe.

But for all you Scorpios and Tauri out there in the Brevity community, maybe we should shoot for an impure reflection of something true, first and foremost?

If this sounds intriguing, please send New Ohio Review and Phillip Lopate your brightest impurities, your canniest reflections, your things-that-don’t-fit.

Deadline: April 15th

Prize: $1000 and publication in NOR 22.

All submissions will be considered even if they don’t win, and the entry fee—$20—gets you a one-year subscription to the magazine. We’ve also got fiction and poetry contests, and we’re at https://newohioreview.submittable.com/submit

Phillip Lopate’s Handkerchief

August 29, 2016 § 10 Comments

the-tie-bar-pocket-square

A well-timed cloth handkerchief

By Kathy Stevenson

One of the great privileges and joys of going back to school for an MFA was the unexpected bonus of entering into an entirely new community of people whom I never would have met otherwise, men and women who love to do the same thing I love to do all day, which is to read and write. I had been a newspaper columnist for years, but most of my work has been done in solitude, as much of a writer’s work is done. So the very idea of belonging to this community of writers, this group of strangers, was a bit unnerving at first. Would I be the oldest student? Would my work measure up? Would I embarrass myself on Dance Party Night?

Now a few years after our graduation my twenty fellow matriculating classmates are not only bound together for life by the fact that we shared something that demanded much from us financially and in time spent away from families and jobs –  we are also bound together by a communal spirit. This spirit is perhaps best exemplified by an incident that occurred during our second residency.

During our residencies, besides the ubiquitous and dreaded workshops, students were treated to readings and lectures by both permanent faculty and visiting writers. A mainstay of MFA programs, these events are hugely popular among the students. Maybe for each of us, in our secret heart, we are imagining our own selves up there someday.

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Phillip Lopate

On this particular day, a lecture was being presented by David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto was due to be published in several months.  The buzz among the students was that this lecture was not to be missed.  I am not sure how “the buzz” works, but among writers it usually seems to denote some sort of controversy, which at that point in our residency, we are dying for.

It was a packed house as Mr. Shields began his lecture.  Just the word Manifesto seemed to signify something promising; something sure to provoke discussion over glasses of red wine in our dorm rooms later that night.  We leaned forward as one, pens and notebooks at the ready, nifty note-takers that we are.

Mr. Shields started out riffing on a few notions he had about nonfiction versus fiction, and then about five minutes in, realized he had somehow gone off track from his planned lecture. He began sorting through his notes to find his place, but the papers must have gotten all mixed up, because he kept shuffling them faster and faster. The sound of this panicky paper-shuffling stabbed the deep quiet of the lecture hall for several interminable minutes.

He must have realized at some point that he was wide awake and not dreaming this particular nightmare. At that moment, perspiration began streaming off the top of his head in rivulets. Mr. Shields is completely bald, and the harsh overhead lighting did not help the situation. As the silence lengthened, we in the audience leaned forward as one.  We squirmed in our seats. We stared at one another in wide-eyed empathy. We willed him silently to find his place. We have had a similar nightmare.

In the hot, glaring spotlight over the lectern, the stream that poured from his head dripped piteously on his notes, which by now seemed to be hopelessly scrambled. Mr. Shields did not make eye contact. He used the back of his arm to try and staunch the perspiration, but this only served to fling it off him and make room for more. Thus passed several more minutes of dead silence, except for the slap of brow-wiping and the crackle of uncooperative paper.

Then, from the front row, another bald pate rose up and we all breathed out (we had been holding our collective breath). Bennington instructor and essayist Phillip Lopate was holding something out to Mr. Shields – an offering, a white flag. A cloth handkerchief.  Phillip Lopate was one of the reasons I had applied to Bennington, and here he was, saving a fellow writer in true distress. Here was a man who could be counted on.  Here was a man, maybe the only man in the room, who had a cloth handkerchief. It turned out to be exactly what was needed. After Mr. Shields was able to blot himself dry, his anxiety subsided, and he was able to get his notes in order. He went on to deliver his lecture like nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I like to think of my new community of fellow writers in just this way. I start to panic, and think I am not good enough, or my pages or words won’t order themselves the way I need them to, and I think of Phillip Lopate’s handkerchief.  It is a trim white flag, folded away, but at the ready when I need it.

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Kathy Stevenson‘s essays have appeared in a wide variety of magazines, newspapers, and online publications including The New York Times, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, Tishman Review, and (recently) the Brevity Nonfiction blog.  She has had short stories published in Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, South Boston Literary Gazette, and Pioneer Press, and has an MFA from Bennington College.

Crux: A New Nonfiction Book Series

April 1, 2015 § 1 Comment

Sharing some good news out of University of Georgia:

The University of Georgia Press is pleased to announce Crux: The Georgia Series in Literary Nonfiction. Edited by John Griswold, the series aims to publish two to four new titles annually.

Named for intersections, and for the heart of the matter, this series will publish literary nonfiction by diverse writers working in a variety of modes, including personal and lyric essay, memoir, cultural meditation, and literary journalism. Books are intended for general readers, including writers, teachers of writing, and students, and will be both intelligent and accessible. Engagement with the world, dedication to craft, precision, and playfulness with form and language are valued. As the series develops, it will include non-American writers and experiences.

Griswold is an assistant professor in the MFA program at McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana. He is the author of A Democracy of Ghosts; Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City; and Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life: Collected Essays (Georgia, 2014). He has written extensively (as Oronte Churm) at Inside Higher Ed and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

The inaugural book in the series will be published in October 2015. My Unsentimental Education, a memoir by Debra Monroe (On the Outskirts of Normal), offers a smart and lyrical take on the isolation that occurs when crossing class barriers in pursuit of the life of the mind.

Press director Lisa Bayer adds, “Creative nonfiction as a genre is experiencing an unprecedented period of growth and interest—a bit of a golden age. Georgia’s strong literary legacy, combined with the richness of the field, positions us perfectly to make a visible mark.”

The series advisory board includes Dan Gunn, Pam Houston, Phillip Lopate, [Brevity founding editor] Dinty W. Moore, Lia Purpura, Patricia Smith, and Ned Stuckey-French.For more information:

visit the Crux series page at the University of Georgia Press– online submissions manager and submission guidelines available here

AWP 2014: Comedy is Tragedy Plus Time

March 13, 2014 § 5 Comments

mr lopate

“Lefty”Lopate. Photo courtesy of Marla Sink Druzgal [TravelingMarla.com]

Alle C. Hall reports on the panel, “Lightening Up the Dark: The Role of Humor in Memoir.”

Stop whining, dang you!

Naturally, the panelist stated it more kindly and with greater eloquence, fessing up to arrogance and regret, to fear, even self-pity—so long as by the final draft, self-pity was gone, gone, gone.

Philip Lopate and Suzanne Greenberg’s craft talks opened and closed the event. Greenberg teaches CNF at Cal State Fullerton, while Lopate goes about the lucky business of being Lopate. He suggested:

  1. Say horrendous things that everyone thinks but no one says out loud.
  2. Say them blithely.
  3. At least teeter on the edge of completely unacceptable.
  4. Use slightly anachronistic language.
  5. Be exquisitely modest.
  6. Poke fun at one’s own cowardice, cruelty, and selfishness.

Susanne Greenberg described students regularly writing about personal tragedies without understanding the unremarkable nature of their tragedies. To help them “stop staring out the window in regret,” she:

  1. infuses the classroom with humor, primarily through her attitude;
  2. looks for moments of humor in an otherwise serious work; and
  3.  seeks revelation, a slashing truth in a lighter piece.

To my mind, she was speaking to the Chekhovian state of joy-filled pain, or pain-filled joy. I can’t out which was which, but do know that it doesn’t matter. The three authors that spoke between Lopate and Greenberg—Joe Mackall, Mimi Schwartz, and Daniel Stolar—understand keenly what it means to share that gift.

Joe Mackall wasted no time getting to busting guts. “Speaking after Phillip Lopate must be like what Danny DeVito feels, at a bar with Brad Pitt. They’re not there for you but there is decent overflow.”

Mackall then dove into a confession of true fear, and the separate fear of writing trite. Was he a “sentimental idiot” because:

  • he was ageing. (Riff: when incontinence finally gets too embarrassing, he plans to smoke a lot of weed.)
  • he refuses to get new carpet in the library because his granddaughters had crawled across the old.

Mimi Schwartz taught the gift by sharing it. She described a moment, when she was at an emotional nadir from loosing her breasts to cancer, that her husband went about their house, saying, “Here, titty, titty; Here, titty, titty.”

She said, “Question the premise that seriousness is more valid than honest humor. Let’s not choose. Let’s go for good writing and good reading, toward a more complex truth.” Schwartz encouraged what she called, “the anger that may start the piece” giving way to something so much more than a way to get over your tragedy. It can turn survival into thriving.

The ideal segue for Dan Stolar, who read work so personal that he remains undecided as to whether to publish it. To honor his choice, I’ll share some of his wisdom, instead.

  • “I use humor to try to break your heart, and to try to keep mine from breaking in the process.”
  • “Make the reader complicit.” He mentioned a gossip-nasty joke that came up two times. “Some of you laughed twice.”
  •  “You are not joking, even as you are trying to make someone laugh. But we are not joking.”

Note the shift in pronoun.

It was gorgeous, witnessing the writers enjoy their work with a seeming lack of self-absorption. Their work seemed at a point where they were curious about people (including themselves) as the walking diagnoses that we are. And the moments that scored the biggest laughs were those when one of them looked up from their prose with a pause, and a self-effacing chuckle.

Alle C. Hall’s blog, About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children, is accepting submissions for The Not-Nearly-Annual Frozen Fish Head Haiku Contest. Ms. Hall is a saucy lass, but serious about comic haiku.

AWP 2014 :The I or the Eye

March 10, 2014 § 4 Comments

eye-black-white-ppt-backgrounds-powerpointGuest blogger Nora Maynard reviews the panel, “The I or the Eye: The Narrator’s Role in Nonfiction”

 “You think you’re yourself, but there are other persons in you.”

-John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

Blogging about an AWP panel on how to craft an appropriate nonfiction narrator feels a little like stepping into a funhouse hall of mirrors.

Writing this post, I find myself becoming more self-conscious than usual about what all nonfiction writers have no choice but to do: put together narrators that are, while at the same time aren’t quite, true versions of ourselves.

As I type this, I feel hyper-aware of myself writing in a voice. (But which one, which me this time? The earnest, Latinate word-using one from university? The cheerful, forthright, service journalist one? The just-the-facts-ma’am, board meeting minutes-taking one? The introspective, image-filled, personal essay-writing one?)

And as I review all that took place in that conference room in Washington State Convention Center the last week, I also find myself thinking about the distinctive voices of the panel’s four presenters: Michael Steinberg, Lia Purpura, Phillip Lopate, and Robert Root, all extraordinarily accomplished, yet contrastingly different, nonfictionists, each using a unique voice to describe his or her own distinctive approach to, yes, nonfiction narrative voice.

It’s all kind of dizzying.

But now it’s time for this “I” to step aside and become an “eye.” Here’s a little sampling of what each panelist said:

1. Michael Steinberg: Where to sit? Center stage–or off?

Moderator Michael Steinberg explained that Elyssa East, who played a key role in the planning and development of the panel, recently had a baby and wasn’t able to attend the conference. Steinberg talked about East’s book Dogtown, which is largely a work of investigative journalism, but includes a very personal section about what drew her to her subject in the first place. Steinberg said the book got him thinking about why some narrators are situated center stage, while others sit in the periphery, offstage. How do we, as writers, choose?

Steinberg offered this quotation from David Shields: “Find the form that releases your best intelligence. Find what you do exquisitely well and play it to the hilt.”

2. Lia Purpura: Step away from the self

Lia Purpura pointed out some of the pitfalls of being overly self-conscious as a writer. She acknowledged that “a strong voice is a powerful idea-delivery system,” but warned that “talking about voice an awful lot as a creator, and too early on in the process may put pressure on the writer to compose in a certain way, that is, to be led by attitude, to foreground a personality–at the expense of recognizing other generative gestures.”

She suggested that a writer might do best to stay alert and open to the new, the unexpected, and the mysterious during the process of writing, rather than adhering to a pre-determined voice. But she also acknowledged the paradox of any attempt to truly sidestep one’s own self: “I move through everything I write as, well, me.”

3. Phillip Lopate: Focus on your contradictions and conflicts

Phillip Lopate traced the roots of his own interest in narrator as character back to an early love of Dostoevsky. He recalled how much he enjoyed the voice of the ranting, first-person narrator of Notes from Underground, quoting the novel’s opening lines: “I am a sick man….I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver.”

He also cited the cheekily provocative tone used by the philosopher Nietzsche, as well as Browning’s self-revealing, unreliable narrator in the poem “My Last Duchess” as other early influences. He advised writers to focus on their own internal contradictions and conflicts as a way of building narrative tension and interest. He encouraged us all to embrace what Frank O’Hara once called “the catastrophe of one’s personality.”

4. Robert Root: Approximate your authentic self

Robert Root listed some of the many hats he’s worn as a writer: “rhetorical-slash-literary academic, a composition-slash-creative nonfiction teacher, a radio commentator, an en plein air essayist, a memoirist,” and described some of the problems of hopping from genre to genre. He recalled how he was once taken to task by an editor for including a joke in an academic article, then later criticized by a book reviewer for being too academic when he used the word “persona” in a book he wrote about E. B. White. Root spoke about the importance of, as writer of creative nonfiction, transcending the conventions and expectations of genre and remaining true to one’s own authentic self.

He wrapped up the afternoon’s discussion with these final words:

“In creative nonfiction, we not only have the freedom but also the necessity of being narrative and expository or experiential and reflective in the same work, to simultaneously be both the I and the Eye in the same essay, even in the same paragraph. For me, that involves listening to myself and being alert for signs of a split personality, making sure I am the first person who is speaking, keeping myself—even when I’m offstage—the matter of my book.”

Nora Maynard‘s work has appeared in Salon, Drunken Boat, the Ploughshares blog, and The Millions, among others. She recently finished her ninth marathon and first novel. Visit her website at http://www.noramaynard.com/.

Essay Daily’s Advent Adventure

December 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

adventIf you haven’t yet discovered the Advent calendar of essays over at Essay Daily, let us be the first to show you the way.  Smart thinkers who write well explore various facet of the form, each and every day of Advent.

Our favorites so far:

Pam Houston extolling the virtues of Rick Reilly’s Sports Illustrated profile of O.J. Simpson, suspected murderer and golf addict.

Michael Martone’s experimental look at the fictive essay, Billy Pilgrim, and Vonnegut.

And Ander Monson’s Short Lessons in Hybridity.

Well that’s three out of four, and the fourth, from Phillip Lopate himself, is pretty nifty as well.  Bookmark the site — they’ll be adding new gifts every day for a few more weeks.

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