No Ideas but in (Beautiful) Things, a Craft Essay from Jody Keisner

May 7, 2020 § 2 Comments

JodyKeisnerIn her craft essay, Jody Keisner illustrates how she applies the notion of “show, don’t tell” along with William Carlos Williams’s phrase, “No ideas but in things.” She provides remarkable examples of how writers use objects—a flower, a button, a ladle, and more—to conjure symbolism and abstract ideas in their essays:

The small happenings explored in [River Teeth magazine’s] Beautiful Things are often mundane and deceivingly simple, yet they become exceptional through the writer placing a unique focal point on an object or a thing—a relief for writers who worry that their lives are too ordinary to write about.

I eventually learned how to apply “show, don’t tell” purposefully to my essays. Both this maxim and “no ideas but in things” remind writers to meet readers halfway when illustrating our intended meaning, but not all the way, encouraging engagement with our prose. And so “no ideas but in (beautiful) things” is one method of many that we might use to effectively reveal truths about our own ordinary and beautiful lives.

Read the rest of Jody Keisner’s captivating craft essay in Brevity’s May 2020 issue.

Sarah Wells on Bearing Witness in Memoir

January 9, 2014 § 2 Comments

SarahWells_An excellent interview with poet and essayist Sarah Wells, Managing Editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, touching on her essay work, including Field Guide to Resisting Temptation from Brevity 43.  Here is an excerpt, followed by the full link:

I prefer “bearing witness” over “brave” because revealing hard subject-matter in writing doesn’t seem brave to me. The definition of brave is “ready to face and endure danger or pain,” and in one instance, “without showing fear.” Maybe there are some stories that are both stories of bravery or stories told bravely, but in the specific instance of “Field Guide…,” I don’t think I was either brave in the season or brave in the telling.  I felt weak in the season and scared to death in the telling. And yet I still felt I had to tell it.  There are some stories that need to be told.  This happened.  I am bearing witness to it.

Read the full interview here on Motherhood & Words.

ART-I-FACT: The Family Memoir Triumvirate

October 9, 2013 § 3 Comments

9780253008596_p1_v2_s600A guest post from Rebecca McClanahan, on the occasion of her rich new memoir,  The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change:

If you take artifact and split it into three parts, you get ART, I, and FACT. I think of these as the triumvirate of family history memoir, a body of three forces that work together toward a central purpose. During the decade that I was researching and writing The Tribal Knot, these three forces collided in surprising ways.

I’ll start with FACT, an element I could not ignore, given the trunkloads of ancestral documents, ephemera, and personal effects my mother had passed on to me, some dating as far back as 1848. Here’s a partial list: Postcards, telegrams, water-stained schoolbooks, photographs, diaries, newspaper clippings, calling cards, hospital bills, tax notices, affidavits, wills, marriage announcements, death notices, farm ledgers, handmade valentines cut raggedly by a child’s hand—my great-uncle’s hand—more than a century ago. And hundreds of letters. Written in good times on store-bought stationery; in bad times on used envelopes, church bulletins, grocery receipts, wallpaper, wrapping paper, on unused bank checks or the margins of free calendars distributed from seed companies.

“What a treasure,” everyone said, “to have all this family history at your fingertips.” The daughter-in-me agreed. As did the granddaughter-in-me, and the great-niece and great-great-granddaughter. The writer-in-me was not so sure. The writer in me knew that all the stuff in the world does not a book make. I had too much–not only the artifacts themselves but also, as the process deepened, oral histories, interviews, site visits, library and other secondary sources, not to mention the ransacking of my own memory and life story. I wanted to give up, but it was too late. I’d been sucked into my ancestors’ lives, and the only way to find my way out was to write my way in–into the questions, the mysteries, in search of the hidden design, the voice, the structure, anything that might move me from mere FACT into ART.

Then, a few years into the process, something shifted. I began to feel like that magnet Eudora Welty talked about in one of her interviews. Once a writer is immersed in the work, she says, “wherever you go, you meet part of the story.” You’re “tuned in for it, and the right things are sort of magnetized.”

At some point, my center became magnetized. Turned out, it was the same center that had magnetized my writing for thirty years: my obsession with human connections, with the myriad ways lives intersect. Then, the universe cooperated with another iron filing drawn to my magnetic center, an image that grew out of an interview I conducted: the description of a “hair picture” woven from the hair of 13 members of my ancestral tribe, an artifact that, according to my informant, was an important factor in a family murder-suicide that occurred in the 1930s. How could I resist the image? It was a physical incarnation of one of the deepest themes emerging through the material: the interconnectedness of family lives. Each family member with her own strand of individuality, yet when all these strands are woven together, the design is more intricate than any individual design could be.

That was one of the ways ART collided with FACT–as image. Over the next years, other elements of art collided with the factual material–structure, characterization, timeline, and decisions about what to include and what to kill off (600 draft pages, as it turned out, which I considered a form of mercy killing for the reader.) When ART collided with FACT, a lot of surprises occurred.

But what surprised me most was how powerful the third element–the I–turned out to be. When I’d first set out, I imagined my role as fact-collector, transcriber of artifacts, amateur historian. As usual, life had other plans. With each letter I studied and artifact I touched, I inched closer into my ancestors’ lives, fitting my feet into the tracks they’d left for me. Imagining yourself into the consciousness of someone else is a form of communion, and, as it turned out, I needed this communion. I needed all the help I could get, including help from the dead. Yes, some of what I found was difficult to accept: my great-grandmother’s painful childhood, my parents’ darkest moments, and the unwelcome discovery of certain documents, like the 1920s Klan membership card. But I was also humbled by the tenacity, grit, humor, and vulnerability of my ancestors, especially those I had known in life. As a child or adolescent, it’s hard to imagine your grandmother, or great-aunt or -uncle aside from their relationship to you. You are the child and they are the old ones, simple as that. But when you inherit hundreds of documents spanning more than a century, their whole lives are spread out before you, from beginning to end. You become the old one, with knowledge that they can’t have.

That was the biggest surprise of all, the realization that because of my access to all these documents, coupled with my knowledge of how their lives played out, I knew more than my ancestors knew. They knew only their present and their past; I knew their future. I knew which marriages would last and which ones wouldn’t. I knew my grandmother was pregnant before she did. I knew that one of the uncles wasn’t telling the truth when he wrote that things weren’t “all okay,” that they were so far from okay that he would end up killing his son and himself. I could move through space and time, foretell my ancestors’ futures, yet I was helpless to intervene. I wanted to reach through time, to post a letter of my own. A letter of warning, yes: Be careful whom you love, what you say, what city you move to, where you hide the ammunition. But it would be a love letter, too, for that is finally what happened, which was the biggest surprise of all. I fell in love with these people, the living and the dead. I wanted to keep living inside their lives. I wanted the letters to keep coming.

**

This blog essay was adapted from a lecture delivered at the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference in May 2013. Listen to the original here: River Teeth audio podcast.

Lonely Together: AWP 2012 Lyric Essay

February 28, 2012 § 3 Comments

From River Teeth and Rebecca McClanahan.  She catches it, absolutely:

On Gender and Genre: The Nonfiction Count

February 22, 2011 § 6 Comments

Our friend, the essayist William Bradley, commented last week on our VIDA count, and we were so intrigued by his theory on gender parity and genre that we asked him to expand and blog it.  So, here it is:

When VIDA released “The Count” earlier this month, I doubt too many of us were all that surprised.  Deep down, I think most of us—men and women alike—knew that women were still underrepresented in literary magazines.  As artists (and patrons of the arts), I think we sometimes like to pretend that the injustices and prejudices found in our culture don’t really relate to our little community—that we’re somehow above or beyond such ugliness.  But if you’re like me, that type of self-delusion can only take you so far, so that when something like “The Count” is revealed, it causes you to shake your head, sigh, swear, and insist to everyone in your circle of Facebook friends that “things have to change.”  But it doesn’t take you by surprise.

I do have to say that, as a writer and reader of nonfiction, I’ve been kind of gratified to see that my favorite sources for memoirs and personal essays seem to be doing better than some other magazines in terms of publishing talented women writers.  Brevity, as we all know, publishes slightly more women than men, on average.  And, according to their online newsletter for the month of February, Creative Nonfiction published in 2010, on average, an equal number of  men and women.  The most recent issue of River Teeth I found in my house had more men than women in it, but the spring 2010 issue of Fourth Genre had significantly more women than men.

Okay, those last two figures probably aren’t as significant as the first two, as they come from a quick glance at magazines I found in the magazine rack in my living room.  Still, it would seem that these magazines that specialize in nonfiction are, on average, publishing more women than other, comparable literary magazines.

Why is that, I wonder?

Well… I have some thoughts.

I don’t want to bad-mouth other genres, but I feel like a lot of my friends who write poetry and fiction will frequently confuse their own preferred aesthetic with “good writing, period.” I don’t get that same sense from nonfiction, which seems to embrace a variety of approaches (you’d never confuse an Ander Monson essay with a Lauren Slater memoir, or a Lauren Slater memoir with Joan Didion’s reportage). That’s not to say that there aren’t talented people doing bold things in other genres, but I wonder if they have more trouble getting editors and readers to appreciate their unique visions (as opposed to in nonfiction, where the new, the genre-bending, or the form-breaking is almost certain to be celebrated by somebody). All that is to say, I wonder if the lack of preconceived notions about what nonfiction is and what makes it good somehow spares it from the unintentional institutional sexism that might pervade other genres…?

I could be wrong about this, but it seemed like something that might be worth considering.  I’d be interested in hearing what others think.

Can’t Touch This: Lopate on the Essay Collection

October 20, 2010 § 4 Comments

The latest issue of River Teeth has a fine essay from Philip Lopate on the health of the essay collection in the current book market. Lopate’s essay, titled “In Defense of the Essay Collection,”  is not available online, so you’ll have to get yourself to a library or order a copy, but it’s well worth the effort.

Here’s where he begins:

“In these uncertain times for the book trade, when the very future of the printed word seems in question, the one thing certain is that no one wants to publish a collection of essays. Your agent would prefer not to have to sell it, your old publishers don’t want to touch it, and even those pretty young editors who smile enticingly around the buffet table and give midlist authors such as yourself their cards don’t want anything to do with it. Perhaps – perhaps – an essay collection with a focus, a hot topic that will get an author on talk shows, yes, that’s conceivable. But a mere compendium of random essays previously published in magazines, forget it.”

River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize 2011

September 15, 2010 § 2 Comments

River Teeth‘s editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length manuscript of literary nonfiction. . The winner will receive $1,000 and publication by the University of Nebraska Press. All entrants will receive a one-year subscription to River Teeth with their submission fee.

General Guidelines:

1. Manuscripts must be between 150-400 pages long
2. Manuscripts must be double-spaced
3. Include a title page with title only
4. Include a cover page with title and contact information
5. Include a $25 contest fee
6. Postmark Deadline is December 31 , 2010.
7. Mail entries to:

RIVER TEETH
Ashland University
401 College Ave.
Ashland, OH 44805

2010 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize

August 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

The 2010 River Teeth Literary nonfiction Prize contest deadline has been changed to December 31, 2009.

River Teeth‘s editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length manuscript of literary nonfiction. The winner will be announced in March of the prize year. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication by the University of Nebraska Press.

General Guidelines:

1. Manuscripts must be between 150-400 pages long
2. Manuscripts must be double-spaced
3. Include a title page with title only
4. Include a cover page with title and contact information
5. Include a $25 contest fee
6. Postmark Deadline is December 31, 2009.
7. Mail entries to:

RIVER TEETH

Ashland University

401 College Ave.

Ashland, OH 44805

All Books Published by The University of Nebraska Press

The River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize Series

February 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

River Teeth’s editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length manuscript of literary nonfiction. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication by The University of Nebraska Press. Manuscripts must be between 150-400 pages long .  Deadline is March 1, 2009.

Past winners have been honored as Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers and School Library Journal Best Adult Books for High School Students, as well as finalists in the Connecticut Book Awards and Sayoran International Prize for Writing.

For more information about River Teeth and the Literary Nonfiction Book Prize, visit http://www.ashland.edu/riverteeth/guidelines.htm

The River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize Series

January 10, 2008 § Leave a comment

This prize series has published a few of my favorite recent books. Become one of them?

River Teeth’s editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length manuscript of literary nonfiction. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication by The University of Nebraska Press. Deadline March 1, 2008

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